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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ex-governor blasts Tepco's cozy ties


Staff writer

Earthquakes and tsunami are unavoidable natural events, but the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was induced by "human errors" stemming from cozy ties between bureaucrats and Tokyo Electric Power Co., former Fukushima Gov. Eisaku Sato told The Japan Times on Wednesday.

Sato, who served five terms from 1988 to 2006, said the inappropriate relationship between government bureaus and the utility often resulted in them burying major troubles, including cracks in reactors and safety shortcomings at Tepco's two nuclear plants in the prefecture.

"Their improper bond means that no one was keeping an eye on Tepco," Sato, 71, said, adding it ultimately led to the inadequate preparations for the March 11 disaster.

The first hint Sato had of inept supervision at the nuclear plants was in January 1989. Tepco, despite being aware for weeks that one of the reactor coolant pumps at the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant was malfunctioning, did not report the trouble to prefectural authorities.

Sato said he quickly filed a complaint with the old Ministry of International Trade and Industry over a development he felt endangered the public. But Tepco only received a slap on the wrist and the power plant was back up and running after a temporary shutdown.

Sato was prompted to take further action in 2002, when a whistle-blower claimed Tepco was hiding malfunctions and cracks in reactors at both Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2.

"It turned out that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had received the same insider information — but in 2000, two years before we did," Sato said. And yet the nuclear safety watchdog, under the wing of MITI's successor, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, not only overlooked the accusation and failed to inform prefectural authorities, it even gave Tepco a heads up.

A NISA official told The Japan Times that at the time, such tips were handled by the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy. "There were some mistakes in how to handle the matter, and I've heard that the tip was actually passed on to Tepco," he acknowledged.

The incident resulted in the resignation of some Tepco executives and a temporary shutdown of all 17 of its nuclear reactors. But no one from METI took responsibility.

"That's when I learned that METI, NISA and Tepco were all part of the same gang," Sato said, adding this prompted him to set up an office in the prefectural government to handle tips from insiders regarding the nuclear plants.

From 2002 until Sato's resignation as governor, the team received 21 anonymous tips. "It was mostly a cry for help," Sato said. Some whistle-blowers complained about a wrecked turbine that went unreported. Others warned of the lack of safety on-site measures.

"The tsunami danger was obviously an issue on the table," Sato said, stressing seismologists were pointing to past evidence of mega-earthquakes that could prove catastrophic. "But you have to ask how serious NISA was doing its job, considering the way that backup electricity was easily knocked out by the waves."

Following March 11, there is finally talk of separating NISA from METI to keep Tepco on a short leash. But Sato said an overhaul of the system and new safety measures will be required before evacuees can safely return home.

"There is a nightmare going on in the evacuation camps," Sato said. "Separating NISA and METI is just the first step — overhauling Tepco's operations and supervision is necessary."

Sato resigned in 2006 and was handed a suspended prison term in 2008 by the Tokyo District Court in connection with a bribery case involving a public works project. That verdict was upheld in 2009 and he has appealed with the Supreme Court.



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