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Friday, July 6, 2012

Nuclear crisis man-made: Diet panel

Regulatory system corrupt; safety steps were rejected


Staff writer

The crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was man-made and not a natural disaster, fundamentally the result of a long-corrupt regulatory system that allowed Tokyo Electric Power Co. to put off critical safety measures, an independent Diet commission investigating the catastrophe concluded Thursday.

News photo
Juice up: Government and Kansai Electric officials inspect the power generator of reactor 3 at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture after it began electricity output Thursday morning. KYODO

"What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan,' " says an accompanying statement by the panel chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

The report says the Fukushima disaster "was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties . . . we conclude that the accident was clearly 'man-made.' "

"We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual," the report said.

According to the panel, which submitted the report to the Diet after about six months of investigations that included questioning 1,176 people for a total of more than 900 hours, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Tepco were aware of the need to improve safety at Fukushima No. 1 before the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, but Tepco was reluctant to do so and NISA didn't press for the necessary improvements.

For instance, the government in 2006 revised the standards for earthquake resistance and requested that utilities evaluate their plants. Although it was found that Tepco needed to implement antiseismic reinforcement measures to meet the new standards, the utility kept putting it off and NISA let it slide, the report says.

"From Tepco's perspective, new regulations would have interfered with plant operations and weakened their stance in potential lawsuits. That was enough motivation for Tepco to aggressively oppose new safety regulations," it says.

NISA failed to go after Tepco about undertaking the necessary reinforcement because it lacked nuclear power expertise compared with the utility, in addition to the fact that NISA is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which promotes the use of nuclear power, it says.

Turning to the government, the panel said its crisis management system was ineffective and failed to stop the crisis from escalating, as its responsibilities and those of Tepco were vague.

As a result, top officials, including then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, became excessively involved during the early stages of the accident and increased the confusion at the plant, the report says.

On the much-disputed question of whether the utility wanted to pull all of its workers out of the crippled plant, the panel said it could not find evidence Tepco executives had this in mind.

Many of the key politicians stationed at the prime minister's office said they thought Tepco was requesting a full pullout, while Tepco has been saying it was planning only a partial evacuation and intended to keep a necessary number of workers at the site.

The panel also said it could not rule out that the Great East Japan Earthquake damaged critical reactor components, including cooling systems.

Tepco has maintained that the temblor did not cause such damage, as far as the utility has been able to ascertain. But the panel noted that the meltdowns and high radiation levels have prevented an up-close assessment of possible quake damage.

The commission is among several efforts to investigate the causes of the accident. A panel independently launched by experts from the private sector released its final report in February. Tepco's in-house investigation panel disclosed its report last month.

The private-sector panel could not question Tepco executives as the utility refused to cooperate, and many analysts have said Tepco's report is biased because the utility can hardly investigate itself in an objective manner. Its report said the size of the earthquake and tsunami was beyond all expectations and could not reasonably have been foreseen.

The Diet's panel, headed by Kurokawa, a former president of the Science Council of Japan and comprising other experts from the private sector, was given a strong mandate, and it questioned key figures in both Tepco and the government, including Kan and then Tepco President Masataka Shimizu.

In its report, the panel also makes several proposals to improve nuclear safety based on the lessons from the Fukushima crisis, such as revising nuclear power-related laws to stress public health and safety as the first priority and creating a commission in the Diet to monitor whether government regulators are doing an adequate job.



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