Three Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives are now facing criminal prosecution for negligence in failing to anticipate a monster tsunami that cut off electricity and inundated back-up emergency generators, causing a cessation of cooling in the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant reactors that precipitated three meltdowns in March 2011. How were they to know?
At the time, Tepco kept insisting that the 15-meter-high tsunami was sōteigai (inconceivable), an act of nature that absolved them of all responsibility. And, just in case the public was not buying this grand shirk, malicious rumors disingenuously scapegoated Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in a failed attempt to shift blame to him. Subsequently, Kan has been vindicated while Tepco remains guilty in the court of public opinion.
In mid-2012, Tepco released the results of its own investigation into the nuclear accident and, with unseemly chutzpah, absolved itself of all responsibility. It was so embarrassing in its exculpatory excesses, and thoroughly contradicted by all three of the other major investigations into the Fukushima debacle, that Tepco disavowed this whitewash in October 2012, conceding allegations of numerous failures; this mea culpa was at the insistence of a panel of international experts hired by the utility.
The court case will focus on what could have been done that Tepco knew about to better manage the risks inherent in the operation of nuclear reactors in a seismically active area with a history of devastating tsunami. As much as Tepco would like to paint this as a “black swan” once-in-a-thousand-year event — something of such low probability of occurrence that it would be a costly fool’s game to prepare for it — Tohoku’s tsunami coast was fairly recently battered in 1896 (8.5 magnitude with waves reaching 38.2 meters) and in 1933 (magnitude 8.4 with waves cresting at 28.7 meters). So it would seem that anyone operating a nuclear reactor on that coastline would have looked into the seismicity of the area and prepared accordingly.
In fact, Tepco did so in 2009 when it conducted in-house computer simulations suggesting the possibility of a 15.7-meter tsunami slamming the site of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. That information was actually provided to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) four days prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake, meaning that it was information considered vital enough to submit to the watchdog agency.
Interestingly, in February 2011 the Fukushima reactors were granted an extension to their 40-year operating license, passing a NISA safety review. But NISA was sharply critical of Tepco and called for the urgent replacement and relocation of backup diesel generators that had stress cracks and were located below, and between, the reactors and the ocean, leaving them vulnerable to inundation. In addition, NISA scolded Tepco for its lax safety practices, a clear reference to the 2002 scandal when a whistleblower revealed that the utility had falsified the repair and maintenance records for all of its nuclear reactors.
NISA, as part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, was implicated in the attempted cover-up of that scandal and stands accused of regulatory capture, meaning it was co-opted by the utilities — a watchdog with neither bark nor bite. By not conducting rigorous oversight to ensure safety, NISA is thus also complicit in Tepco’s lack of a culture of safety, pinpointed by three major investigations as a cause of what they declared was a man-made nuclear accident.
Thus one wonders why no bureaucrats are being prosecuted. Haruki Madarame, then chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, testified in the Diet on Feb. 15, 2012: “Though global safety standards kept on improving, we wasted our time coming up with excuses for why Japan didn’t need to bother meeting them.” He also pointed out that back in the early 1990s, Tepco was told about the risk of a station blackout that might lead to reactor meltdowns and was urged to develop a defense in depth, meaning more backup electricity sources just in case. Tepco stonewalled safety regulators, asserting that the current systems were adequate.
So the nuclear accident at Fukushima was precipitated by natural disaster, but poor risk management and institutionalized complacency about risk were major factors increasing the likelihood of an accident and fumbling crisis response. The myth of 100-percent safety propagated by the “nuclear village” of atomic energy advocates made it taboo to question safety standards and militated against sober risk assessment and robust disaster emergency preparedness.
Not everyone was surprised by the nuclear disaster. In 1975, nuclear chemist Jinzaburo Takagi and others established the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), which ever since has issued regular reports on power plant safety issues. Fukushima was the nightmare scenario that CNIC had long been predicting. In a 1995 interview, Takagi spoke about the risks of a meltdown in the event of multiple failures, as happened in Fukushima in March 2011. He correctly warned about the possibility of large radioactive releases from a meltdown resulting from a breakdown in the emergency core cooling system and the failure of back-up diesel generators.
“It’s inexcusable that a nuclear accident couldn’t be managed because a major event such as the tsunami exceeded expectations,” said Yotaro Hatamura, chariman of the government’s Third Party Panel Investigation Committee, blasting Tepco’s hubris in 2012. He added that risk management means anticipating worst-case scenarios — not wishing risk away.
Hatamura pointed out that the utility was ill-prepared for the crisis, dismissing the possibility of a total loss of power, and that its workers made critical errors in shutting off automated emergency cooling systems and wrongly assumed part of the cooling system was working when it was not. These workers and their managers were inadequately trained to cope with an emergency situation and according to the panel, lacked basic knowledge concerning the emergency reactor cooling system. Their mishandling of emergency procedures contributed to the crisis.
Tepco chose to ignore centuries of geological evidence and failed to act on fresh and compelling evidence about tsunami risk, a blind spot that left the plant needlessly vulnerable. It also successfully lobbied the government’s Earthquake Research Committee on March 3, 2011, to soften a public advisory warning that a massive tsunami could hit the Tohoku coast because it might cause misunderstanding. This PR approach to risk management promoted an unjustified insouciance that cost Japan dearly. Alas, Tepco was also cutting corners, balking at the $1 billion price tag of building a higher seawall to cope with the higher tsunami projections — a bargain in retrospect.
While it is unlikely that the Tepco Three (former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and two former vice presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro) will be convicted for irresponsibly minimizing risk in ways that endangered local residents or for cutting costs that compromised public safety, the trial will make the nuclear village squirm as the public revisits the folly of wishing risk away — and understands it is happening all over again.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.