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Rearranging the deck chairs on the nuclear Titanic

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Special To The Japan Times

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s recently released postmortem on the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 makes for grim reading and serves as a timely reminder of why the restart of the Sendai nuclear plant in Kyushu is a bad idea.

When an atomic energy advocacy organization delivers multiple harsh assessments of Japan’s woeful nuclear safety culture and inadequate emergency countermeasures and disaster management protocols, it’s time to wonder how much has really changed in the past five years — and whether restarting any of the nation’s nuclear reactors is a good idea.

In 2012, the government established a new nuclear safety watchdog agency called the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and it now contends that Japan has the strictest nuclear safety regulations in the world. But is that true? And does it matter?

David Lochbaum, co-author of last year’s “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster,” the best book on the meltdowns that I’ve read, likens recent reforms to “rearranging the deck chairs on the nuclear Titanic” He’s not buying Japan’s claim of having the world’s strictest guidelines.

“I’d sooner buy the Brooklyn Bridge,” Lochbaum says. “What would Japan have said about its safety guidelines on March 10, 2011? Would they have conceded that their safety guidelines ranked 23rd worldwide, but that level of protection was good enough for the people of Japan?

“It’s all valueless posturing. No regulator in any country would publicly confess to anything less than the best on the planet.”

Had the NRA existed pre-Fukushima, Lochbaum thinks the disaster would have shown that structure to be inadequate.

“The NRA would have been splintered and its roles relegated to various governmental agencies,” he says.

At the time, however, responsibility and authority for nuclear safety was divided among various agencies, so the government moved to concentrate such powers under the NRA and calls that a solution.

“Disasters are bad and require changes,” Lochbaum says. “That the changes fail to address the underlying problems gets lost.”

However, Japan is not the only nation “rearranging the nuclear deck chairs” to conjure a simulacrum of enhanced safety, and Lochbaum points to an incident in 2008 in Pennsylvania as an example.

“When contract security officers were discovered sleeping on the job at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant, its owner fired the contractor and brought the security officers in-house,” he says. “It was essentially the same group of individuals wearing different emblems on their uniforms. But somehow the different emblems ‘fixed’ the problem and all was well with the world.”

A relevant story since most of the NRA’s employees used to work at the discredited Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which was blamed for poor oversight and safety lapses due to regulatory capture and servile deference to the utilities.

“It’s more convenient than truthful to blame Fukushima on regulatory capture,” Lochbaum says. “I am unaware of any reactor type operated by any company in any nation that would have survived the one-two punch that the earthquake and tsunami dealt that plant.” Yet, it is disconcerting to know that according to Lochbaum, “Fukushima’s design and operating procedures were not radically different than those deployed worldwide.”

Both the IAEA report and Lochbaum emphasize the need for defense in depth, meaning multiple levels of safety infrastructure, equipment and redundancy to reduce the possibility of a nuclear accident.

Defense in depth depends on manifold barriers that lessen risk, but Lochbaum points out all the barriers that failed at Fukushima: off-site power was lost, on-site power was lost, backup on-site power could not be deployed in time, the protective sea wall was insufficient, and more.

“Had just one of these barriers worked, Fukushima would not have happened,” Lochbaum says. “There was simply not enough what-iffing going on” — what the IAEA describes as a “failure to challenge existing safety systems.”

By not preparing for the worst and relying on probabilistic scenarios based on overly optimistic assumptions, the IAEA implies that Japan’s nuclear regulators and plant operators were derelict in their duties. There is a danger that the NRA, in touting its new safety regime, is yet again nurturing a myth of safety.

“When our guesses are good, the ‘strictest regulations’ look real good,” Lochbaum says. “When our guesses are bad, it must be regulatory capture or centralized governance, or de-centralized governance, or whatever lame excuse wanders by.”

The NRA will still rely extensively on plant operators reporting and self-inspections to ensure compliance with regulations. Given that all the utilities operating reactors admitted they faked their repair and maintenance data, why trust them now?

Lochbaum also notes the huge discrepancies between safety assessments by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant operators. He likens safety goals to nuclear speed limits, but these are meaningless since the government’s radar gun and the utilities’ speedometers are way out of line. The closest match has a radar reading of a utility doing 110 miles per hour when it claimed it was following the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. But at another nuclear plant at Watts Bar in Tennessee, when the “atomic speedometer showed 55 miles per hour, the NRC’s radar gun indicated a smokin’ fast 42,853 miles per hour!”

He concludes that existing risk-assessment models “cannot be used for anything other than amusing storytelling and nonproductive time-wasting until their results have closer agreement. Differing by factors of 2 to 800 about risks doesn’t allow risk-informed decision-making. It supports risk-deformed decision-making.”

And don’t bank on Japan’s reactor stress tests or other new measures such as taller sea walls, longer-duration batteries and other incremental upgrades.

“Individually and collectively, (those things) hedge our guesses and make it less likely that a bad guess will trigger another nuclear disaster,” Lochbaum says. However, “As long as protective barriers are determined by guesswork without the ‘what if’ backups, nuclear disasters will continue to happen.”

The IAEA says there is no room for complacency about nuclear safety, but it fails to call Japan out for a major flaw in its disaster emergency preparedness. It details the need for a proper emergency evacuation organization, training and drills, but under current rules this is the responsibility of local hosting towns, one that exceeds their limited capacity — especially now that the evacuation zones around nuclear plants have been expanded to 30 km. Simulations of evacuations under optimistic assumptions underscore that people living inside the evacuation zone will be exposed to significant radiation because transport networks will be jammed. And if we factor in a volcanic eruption depositing a thick layer of ash and a simultaneous tsunami wiping out coastal roads, the evacuation would be disastrous.

The Titanic was also ill-prepared to evacuate its passengers because it failed to consider the unimaginable and thus mismanaged the risk. It seems the lessons of Fukushima are also being ignored in favor of wishing away risk, and hoping for inspired improvisation. There is thus good reason why citizens across Japan are filing lawsuits to block reactor restarts and some gutsy judges are resisting pressure from the nuclear village and siding with common sense.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.