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Thursday, July 26, 2012

EDITORIAL

Obsession with a safety myth

The government-commissioned panel charged with investigating the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant submitted its final report to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Monday. The report made clear that obsessed with the myth of nuclear safety, both Tepco and the regulators lacked capabilities, organizational setups and mental preparedness to cope with a massive accident.

"Because the government and the power utilities, including Tepco, were biased by the safety myth, thinking they would never ever face such a serious accident, they were unable to realize that such a crisis could occur in reality. This appears to be the fundamental problem," said the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant of Tokyo Electric Power Co.

A big question is whether the government and the power industry have really liberated themselves from the myth and have a humble attitude needed in handling nuclear technology. The decision by the government and Kansai Electric Power Co. to restart the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at Kepco's Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture appears to point to the contrary.

It was often said that what happened at Fukushima No. 1, including the massive tsunami that hit it, was "beyond expectations." But the panel pointed out an important thing about the use of the phrase. It said that "beyond expectations" in the usage by the nuclear power establishment means excluding low-probability events from consideration because it is financially impossible to deal with every predictable event.

This shows that both the regulators and the power industry have not paid serious attention to the fact that once a severe accident happens at a nuclear power plant, it causes irreparable damage, even if the probability of such an accident is extremely low.

The finding by the panel suggests that both the regulators and the power industry lack the required attitude of people who have to manage nuclear technology. The simple fact that the nature of a nuclear accident is completely different from the nature of a car or aircraft accident must not be forgotten.

Mr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, head of a similar panel commissioned by the Diet to investigate the Fukushima nuclear crisis, stressed that the crisis is not yet over. Due to the evacuation order, some 160,000 people are still living away from their homes. Some elderly people died due to the stress and fatigue that resulted from their forced evacuation to safer locations. For others, all hope of surviving was lost. Many people had to shut their businesses. The nuclear regulators and Tepco must not forget that the Fukushima nuclear accident deprived many people of the normal life they once lived and has caused great pain and misery.

All members of the nuclear power establishment must ask themselves if they are really qualified to establish the type of culture that gives priority to protecting people's health and livelihoods.

The government-commissioned panel headed by Mr. Yotaro Hatamura, professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo, interviewed 772 people spending 1,479 hours from June 2011 and produced a 448-page final report. It pointed out that the trade and industry ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Tepco failed to make sufficient preparations for a large tsunami and a severe accident. For example, although Tepco in 2008 carried out a simulation with the assumption that a tsunami higher than 15 meters could hit Fukushima No. 1, it did not take concrete measures to prepare for such a possibility.

It also pointed to sloppy operations at the plant. Workers at the No. 3 reactor tried to cool its nuclear fuel by using a high-pressure core injection system. But they could not cool the reactor for six hours after manually turning off the cooling system. This is because they had not prepared an alternative means to cool the reactor.

In contrast, workers at the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant confirmed that there was an alternative way to cool the reactor before switching to another cooling system. The panel said that preparations at the No. 2 reactor at Fukushima No. 1 to inject water to cool the reactor were also insufficient.

The Diet-commissioned panel suggested that the earthquake was also a factor that contributed to the accident. But the government-commissioned panel took a negative view of the former's opinion. It said that the direct cause of the accident was the tsunami and ruled out the possibility that before the arrival of the tsunami, Fukushima No. 1 sustained damage that would have made it impossible to prevent the release of radioactive substances from its reactors into the environment.

But one wonders whether complex piping inside a nuclear power plant can remain undamaged when hit by a strong earthquake. The Diet-commissioned panel pointed out that when the piping suffers small fissures, measuring devices cannot detect water leaks. The government-commissioned panel's conclusion would justify taking no action to strengthen outside tanks that store water for cooling reactors and the pipes connected to them.

The Diet-commissioned panel questioned 38 people in sessions open to the public and streamed questions and answers live in the Internet with simultaneous English translation.

The government-commissioned panel on the other hand carried out all its hearings behind closed doors and the identity of most of those questioned is hidden in the report. This method apparently made its report somewhat fuzzy. There even is a view that the panel was rather "soft" on bureaucrats.

Many questions as to the causes of the nuclear accident and facts related to it remain unanswered. It is not yet known what parts of the plant were damaged and to what extent. The government and the Diet should launch further investigations. Establishing a permanent body should be considered.

Investigation reports by the Diet-commissioned panel, the government-commissioned panel, Tepco's committee and a private sector committee contain many differences. At the very least, thorough studies should be made to ascertain the trustworthiness of various views and explanations.



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