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Sunday, Aug. 12, 2007
Failing to learn lessons from a nuclear past
What do disgraced yokozuna (sumo grand champion) Asashoryu Akinori and Tokyo Electric Power Co. have in common? Answer: Both are under the delusion that they can get away with lying in plain sight.
The Mongolian wrestler may or may not be suffering from depression, as one doctor has claimed, but in any case, only a loss of mental capacity explains how he believed he could go to his home country to play in a charity soccer event without anyone in the Japanese media finding out, especially given that soccer star Hideo Nakata, a sports celebrity of equal if not greater magnitude, was involved in the event. In order to make the trip, Asashoryu claimed his back problems prevented him from participating in a mandatory promotional sumo tournament, and now his subterfuge may cost him his career.
TEPCO is in no such danger, despite its proven lack of credibility following the Kashiwazaki earthquake on July 16, when officials downplayed the damage done to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station. It has since been shown that the radiation leaks caused by the quake were more serious than TEPCO first reported. Even more damning was the utility's attempt to cover up the seriousness of a transformer fire. You can't help but wonder how long TEPCO believed their coverup would last once reporters found out that outside firefighters had to be brought in to handle the blaze.
But maybe "coverup" isn't the best term to describe what TEPCO and the nuclear power industry do when questions arise as to the safety of Japan's atomic power plants. It is widely known that while individual cases of negligence related to nuclear operations can be discussed and condemned, questions about the viability and safety of nuclear energy itself are off limits, since the government decided some time ago that it would be the cornerstone of resource-starved Japan's electric-power policy.
That's why the government is so irritated at foreign media coverage of the K-K plant. The mainstream Japanese media, meaning the national vernacular newspapers and TV networks, have played down the K-K dangers in line with the official version, even while they point to a lack of professionalism on the part of its operators. The BBC and CNN have been forthright about those dangers, and have directly questioned the wisdom of building nuclear plants on active earthquake faults. An indication of the difference in reporting is that every foreign news item mentions that K-K is the largest nuclear plant in the world in terms of power output, while local media almost never bring up this fact.
TEPCO has called the foreign coverage "irresponsible," which takes nerve considering how completely the utility denied the seriousness of the transformer fire. The weekly magazines, who by their independent nature are less beholden to TEPCO or the government, have pieced together what really happened. Though each of the seven reactors at K-K has its own fire brigade, the one responsible for Reactor 3, where the fire broke out, discovered there were no chemical extinguishers available; and because the water lines were damaged in the quake, there was not enough pressure to use hoses. They decided to call the fire department, but the door to the room with the FD hotline was stuck in its jamb, so they called the public emergency number, 119. Due to the earthquake and the fact that it was a holiday, they had to wait a few hours. The five firemen who showed up (and who had come in on their day off) put out the blaze, but experts say they were lucky — the fire could have been much more serious.
Two years ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned the K-K plant that its firefighting capabilities were insufficient, and the July 16 fire was the fourth at the plant this year.
Still, some media have taken up TEPCO's PR crusade. Shortly after the quake, an Italian soccer team canceled a planned trip to Japan due to nuclear-safety fears. The mainstream media ridiculed the decision as an overreaction caused by "hysterical" coverage overseas. The pundits on the TBS morning wide show actually laughed. One reporter pointed out that following the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, Italy suspended its own nuclear power program, but because of shortages, it often buys electricity from neighboring France, which relies a great deal on nuclear power. What a bunch of hypocrites, they snickered.
Though there are organizations that call for the dismantling of Japan's nuclear reactors, the majority of Japanese seem to have accepted them as an indispensable feature of modern life. But that doesn't mean they believe the utilities or the government when they tell them not to worry. The government at first resisted inspections of K-K by the IAEA, presumably because it looked bad having outsiders come in to check whether or not plants overseen by the government were safe. Eventually they backed down because the local government wanted reassurances from someone the public would believe — tourism in the area has declined as much as 90 percent since the earthquake.
The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was built in 1977, a year before the government instituted nuclear safety guidelines that in effect made the plant obsolete. In the subsequent 30 years, a great deal has been learned about earthquakes and nuclear-energy safety, much of the latter based on the tragedies of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. There have also been a number of well-publicized accidents in Japan that follow the same pattern: official reassurances followed by shocking revelations of negligence. Learning from past mistakes is a hallmark of technological development, but by always trying to downplay crises, TEPCO and the government give the impression that they haven't learned a thing.