Japan’s ‘man-made’ nuclear fiasco

A report released last week by the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission backs what many members of the public have long believed: The fiasco at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was “a profoundly man-made disaster — that could have and should have been foreseen and prevented.”

The findings of the 19-member commission were based on a six-month investigation that included 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people as well as nine visits to the Fukushima No. 1 power plant and three other nuclear power plants. In an unprecedented and most welcome move, the panel sought maximum information disclosure by opening up all 19 of its commission meetings to the public and broadcast all but the first one on the Internet in Japanese and English. The commission also dispatched teams overseas to confer with experts in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and France.

The Fukushima nuclear accident, concluded the panel, “was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.” The commission identified the root causes of the accident as “organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationale for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.”

The commission asserted that the direct causes of the accident were foreseeable prior to the March 11, 2011, disaster. But Tepco, the regulatory bodies, and the trade and industry ministry promoting nuclear power failed to develop the most basic safety requirements, including assessing damage probability, preparing for collateral damage containment and developing evacuation plans. Both Tepco and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) were aware of the need for structural reinforcement at the Fukushima No. 1 plant to meet new guidelines, stated the commission, but rather than demand that it be done, NISA allowed Tepco to act “autonomously” and none of the required reinforcements were done by 3/11.

The commission also found that although NISA and Tepco were aware of the risk of total electricity outages and reactor core damage from tsunamis since 2006, NISA failed to create new regulations and Tepco neglected to take any protective measures.

The commission uncovered evidence showing that the regulatory agencies and Tepco colluded on decisions regarding the implementation of new regulations. It also found that the regulators had “a negative attitude” toward the import of advanced knowledge and technology from abroad, and concluded that if measures implemented in the United States following 9/11 had been put into place in Japan, the Fukushima disaster might have been prevented.

In short, concluded the commission, “There were many opportunities for taking preventative measures prior to March 11. The accident occurred because Tepco did not take these measures, and NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) went along.”

The commission also rejected Tepco and the government’s effort to portray the tsunami — a “black swan” event — as the sole cause of the nuclear accident in an effort to exclude the foreseeable earthquake. The panel stated there was a possibility that the earthquake “damaged equipment necessary for ensuring safety” and caused a small-scale loss-of-coolant accident in Unit 1.

It identified the quake as the cause of the critical loss of off-site power to the plant, and noted “there was no diversity or independence in the quake-resistant external power systems and the Shin-Fukushima transformer station was not earthquake resistant.”

The commission identified “many problems with on-site operations during the accident” that hampered an effective response and blamed them on organizational problems within Tepco, stating that “events made it clear that if there are no response measures for a severe accident in place, the steps that can be taken on-site in the event of a station blackout are very limited.”

The commission also concluded that the situation continued to deteriorate because the crisis management system of the Prime Minister’s Office, the regulators and other responsible agencies did not function correctly. It pointed out that direct instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Fukushima No. 1 plant caused confusion at the scene and that Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s visit to the scene by helicopter caused a loss of precious time for the power plant to cope with the accident.

The commission blamed the chaotic nature of the evacuation — which was plagued by information lags and resulted in some residents fleeing to areas with higher levels of radiation — on the negligence of the regulators who failed to implement adequate measures against a nuclear disaster and the failure of previous governments and regulators to focus on crisis management. Noting that residents in the affected areas continue to suffer from the disaster, the panel accused the government and regulators of failing to act to protect their health and restore their welfare, and called on the government to draw up measures to improve their lives.

Accusing the regulators of failing to supervise nuclear safety, Tepco of exploiting its cozy relationship with the regulators to take the teeth out of regulations, and criticizing existing laws and regulations for lacking mechanisms to ensure that the latest technological findings from overseas are utilized, the commission stated that the safety of nuclear energy in Japan and of the public cannot be ensured unless the nuclear plant operators, the regulators and the laws and regulations undergo substantial reform.

It must not be forgotten that the nuclear disaster festers on 16 months after it started and that some 160,000 people are still living away from their homes because of the accident. Japan’s nuclear power establishment — the government, regulators and operators — must be forced to change its culture to one that places top priority on the public’s safety. That the commission cited the earthquake as a possible contributing factor to the accident is hugely important in a country where earthquakes are commonplace and present a threat to nuclear power plants. In a welcome move, Tepco decided to disclose the video recordings of meetings between officials at its head office and officials on site at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. This will facilitate further investigation into this matter. The Atomic Energy Society of Japan should also lend its full support to the investigation.

Efforts by the government and Tepco to reduce radiation levels in affected communities are hampered by an inflexible bureaucratic approach. Red tape must be slashed and local concerns heeded. Evacuees must be made fully aware of compensation options and receive enough data to make an informed decision on whether they should return home or resettle elsewhere.

Both the government and the power industry should strive to address and eliminate the problems cited by the commission. The Diet should follow the panel’s recommendation and establish a permanent committee to oversee the nuclear power industry and ensure the public’s safety. In addition, the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be established this autumn should have the capability to give effective technical advice to personnel at nuclear power plants in the case of severe accidents.