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Thursday, May 5, 2011
Tsunami threat assumptions little challenged; criticism stifled
Realistic safety debate not nuke sector, regulator forte
By JUSTIN PRITCHARD
Nearly 10 years after Tokyo Electric Power Co. first assured the government the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was safe from any tsunami, regulators were just getting around to checking out the claim. The move was too little, too late.
But even if there had been scrutiny years before the fury of the earthquake-powered wave swamped the six atomic reactors at the power plant on March 11, it is almost certain the government wouldn't have challenged the unrealistic analysis that Tepco had submitted in 2001. A review of the nation's approach to nuclear plant safety shows how closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail.
Regulators simply didn't see it as their role to pick apart the utility's raw data and computer modeling to judge for themselves if the plant was sufficiently protected from tsunami.
The policy amounted to this: Trust plant operator Tepco — and don't worry about verifying its math or its logic.
This kind of willful ignorance was not unique within a sympathetic bureaucracy at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The agency has multiple functions — some that can easily be viewed as having conflicting goals.
The ministry's promoter-regulator conflict makes Japan unusual among nuclear power-producing countries. The United States split those two functions nearly four decades ago with the closure of its Atomic Energy Commission; now the U.S. Department of Energy promotes nuclear power while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission handles safety.
France separated the two functions several years ago.
Here, the government
- until recently dominated by the business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party — has long supported major industries and the power utilities that run nuclear plants have enjoyed direct access to regulators.
Both regulator and regulated share an interest in promoting nuclear as a greenhouse gas-free energy source that reduces Japan's heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels. Regulator and regulated also share people.
In the practice known as "amakudari" (descent from heaven), top government officials nearing the end of their careers land plum jobs within the industries they regulated, giving companies intimate familiarity with their overseers.
Meanwhile, top industry officials are appointed to positions on policy-shaping government advisory panels.
All countries with nuclear power have a limited group of people who participate in a highly complex industry. That finite universe means experts inevitably move between the public and private sectors.
American law restricts which jobs departing regulators can hold in the private sector. A high-level manager at the U.S. NRC would have to wait a year after leaving before representing a private-sector entity it regulates; ex-NRC employees can never appear before the federal government and represent the public sector on a specific issue — such as a contract or license application — they handled while at the agency. In Japan, the "revolving door" spins freely.
Toru Ishida became an adviser at Tepco in January, just four months after retiring as the head of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, the METI organization that promotes the nuclear industry; after becoming a posttsunami symbol for amakudari, he resigned.
The review of relationships on both sides of the nuclear power establishment shows industry people also ascend to regulatory posts.
An examination of the business and institutional ties of 95 people currently at three main nuclear regulatory bodies, either as bureaucrats or members of policy-setting advisory panels, shows that 26 of them have been affiliated either with the industry or groups that promote nuclear power, typically with government funding. There were also 24 people with prior positions at those three regulatory bodies — one-third of whom had connections to industry or pronuclear groups.
Industry is heavily involved elsewhere in the government. At the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which backs research and promotes the nuclear industry, one of the five commissioners is an adviser to Tepco, while another is a former executive at the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry.
"Tepco participates when its expertise is required on various panels related to nuclear issues," said Linda Gunter, a Tepco spokeswoman until April 20, when she too resigned.
A spokesman for Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, an industry group that includes former utilities employees, said regulatory panels need insiders because nuclear energy is a specialized field.
Perhaps no one illustrates the movement between business and government — and back — better than Tokio Kano. He joined Tepco in 1957, became a leader in its nuclear unit in 1989, and by 1998 became a Diet member backed by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren).
Lawmaker Kano helped rewrite national policy that enshrined nuclear as the energy of Japan's future.
After two six-year terms, he returned to Tepco as an adviser in July. The utility declined to make him available for an interview.
The aftermath of the quake and tsunami may finally persuade a nation long enchanted with nuclear power that intimate ties between regulator and regulated can create significant potential conflicts of interest.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano promised recently to curb the ability of bureaucrats to depart for jobs at utilities. "Regardless of whether this is illegal or not, this should not be allowed," he told reporters.
As Fukushima No. 1 deteriorated into a Chernobyl-like disaster, the main spokesman at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency maintained that the regulatory structure was fine. But after a month, NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama wavered.
"Our thinking up to now was that safety will be maintained by the same group that both promotes and regulates the industry," Nishiyama said.
Under the nuclear regulatory system, NISA carries out plant inspections once every 13 months and checks on safety measures every quarter. There are no surprise inspections, though inspectors visit plants routinely. Utilities have been ordered to shut plants temporarily after safety problems and coverup scandals, and they have paid damages.
In 2002, after Tepco was found to be misrepresenting inspection videotape and other records, the maximum that companies could be fined for a false report was raised to ¥100 million. No utility has received that penalty and Tepco has never paid any fines related to falsifying records.
What Tepco did do in 2002 was clean house — at least symbolically — by firing its leadership. But in what the Japanese call "the nuclear village," people take care of their own. Three top executives who departed the utility in disgrace found their way back. Currently advising Tepco are Nobuya Minami, Hiroshi Araki and Toshiaki Enomoto — the former president, chairman and vice president who resigned amid the scandal.
To be sure, despite a series of serious coverups by utilities, the nuclear industry is not regarded as dangerously underregulated. In fact, there is layer upon layer of bureaucracy in the central government.
But that means regulators can be so slow to act that the utilities effectively self-regulate.
That's what happened with the tsunami threat to the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Tepco told NISA in a one-page memo it voluntarily submitted in December 2001 that waves would not exceed 5.7 meters, according to Masaru Kobayashi, head of the agency's nuclear power plant safety section. On March 11, the water reached 14 meters at the plant, knocking out backup power generators to the reactors, causing a cascade of problems that led to the ongoing release of radiation into the environment.
Tepco's memo didn't include anything about its data or assumptions of earthquake size and location — vital details to determine whether the calculations made sense.
NISA neither demanded the information nor scrutinized the guidelines Tepco used in its calculations. If regulators had looked, they would have found that 22 of the 35 people on the committee that wrote the guidelines had strong ties to the nuclear power industry. To hear NISA's Kobayashi tell it, the regulator did not thoroughly analyze Tepco's tsunami memo.
"We do not know the contents of that assessment," Kobayashi said in an interview. "We had been planning to do our tsunami-related review."
Those discussions had been delegated to several of the 99 committees at NISA that scrutinize nuclear plant safety. They were going to start this year, Kobayashi said.
Despite the sprawling committee structure, panelists were typically familiar faces drawn from a network of utilities, government bureaucracies, business-affiliated research groups and elite universities.
Many times, regulation has been reactive, not proactive. For example, in 2007, NISA's committees began focusing on seismic dangers — but only after an earthquake in Niigata Prefecture caused radioactive leaks, a minor fire and wall cracks at Tepco's sprawling Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear complex.
That 6.8-magnitude earthquake was stronger than Tepco had said was possible.
Tasked with reviewing the earthquake and tsunami preparedness of Japan's 54 reactors, NISA went to work — at a drawn-out pace that lacked urgency and deep scrutiny of key issues.
During nearly four years of panel discussions, the groups focused on issues such as plants' ability to withstand shaking, and measures of geological fault lines. Concern about nuclear plants being vulnerable to tsunami that have battered Japan following major quakes came up just once, according to a review of meeting records, interviews with several panel members and NISA's own accounting.
At a June 2009 meeting, Yukinobu Okamura, a tsunami expert at a major state institute, asked why his fellow panelists were excluding the massive Jogan tsunami in 869 from consideration of the kind of waves the Fukushima plant could face.
"I would like to ask why you have not touched on this at all," Okamura demanded of the panel. "I find it unacceptable."
A Tepco official, identified only by his last name, Nishimura, retorted that damage from Jogan wasn't extensive — a claim Okamura rebutted.
The NISA official presiding over the panel ordered more discussions. That didn't happen.
NISA wasn't alone in its use of expert panels. Another regulator that uses them is the Nuclear Safety Commission, which is smaller and more academic than NISA, and is housed in the prime minister's Cabinet Office.
In the current situation, the NSC has often seemed impotent. It has defended itself by saying that day-to-day crisis management must come from Tepco — and that it is up to NISA to guide Tepco.
Its chief, Haruki Madarame, was until last year a prominent University of Tokyo professor, whose research has focused on winning social acceptance for nuclear power by better communication on safety.
Madarame's former university has been a key source for ministry bureaucrats and professors on government advisory panels that shaped tsunami and quake safety policies. And Tepco was a top donor to the University of Tokyo.
Research by Yoshihiro Kinugasa, a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology and regulatory panel veteran, tended to underestimate fault line lengths — thus helping reduce projected quake risks for nuclear plants.
Kinugasa, a key member of regulatory panels since 1984, said in a recent interview his studies on fault lines near nuclear plants were unrelated to the problems at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, caused by a fault about 350 km off the coast.
At a meeting in August 2006, Kinugasa was challenged by Kobe University professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, who urged a rethink of fault line issues.
"That argument basically sounds like going over the same thing," Kinugasa said. "Spending any more time on the matter I think would be a waste of time."
Ishibashi wasn't impressed, and quit the panel later that year, complaining that contrary opinion was not tolerated.