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Thursday, Sep. 6, 2012

Investigators fault nuclear culture

Staff writer

The failure of utilities and nuclear regulatory authorities to prepare for monster tsunami and other crises, made obvious by last year's catastrophe at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, was the result of a Japanese institutional problem that blurred where the responsibilities lie.

News photo
Hard cultural truths: Kiyoshi Kurokawa (left), Yotaro Hatamura (center) and Koichi Kitazawa, who led separate investigations into the Fukushima nuclear crisis, appear together at a symposium in Tokyo last Friday. KAZUAKI NAGATA

That conclusion was shared by the chairmen of three independent panels probing the Fukushima crisis at a recent symposium in Tokyo organized by the Science Council of Japan.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who led a Diet-appointed panel, Yotaro Hatamura, who chaired a government-appointed panel, and Koichi Kitazawa, who headed a team set up by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation that became known as the "private-sector" investigation panel, appeared at the same public event last Friday for the first time since they finished their investigations to discuss their findings and exchange views on how their respective reports can be utilized.

They said people involved in nuclear safety issues were hung up on the notion — often dubbed the "safety myth" — that Japan's reactors were safe and could not possibly suffer a catastrophic accident, so they didn't have to think ahead about steps to contain such crises.

"And we can't see who was responsible (for failing to prepare against crises). As a matter of form, there are government officials who headed the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, but none of them think they were truly responsible," said Kitazawa, a former chairman of the Science and Technology Agency. "They just said that even if they had tried to change the situation, they would have been 'powerless' trying to act on their own."

Kurokawa, a physician and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said NISA, the government nuclear watchdog, failed to properly implement regulations because the utilities have more nuclear expertise, reversing the position of the regulators and those being regulated in a phenomenon called "regulatory capture."

Japan's rigid career path and culture of seniority regarding personnel matters prevented any effort to break this regulatory capture, as people were just locked into following their predecessors' methods.

"Most Japanese think of this kind of institutional culture as natural. I think this makes it very difficult to clarify where the responsibilities lie," he said.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami exceeding 10 meters knocked out all power sources at the Fukushima No. 1 plant on March 11, 2011. With no way to cool the fuel cores, reactors 1, 2 and 3 experienced meltdowns and spewed massive radioactive fallout into the environment.

The three chairmen stressed that it is crucial for Japan's nuclear power community to change its institutional culture and adopt a more transparent process for making policy.

The people in charge of nuclear safety were mainly concerned with how things usually go right and "they significantly failed to visualize how things could go wrong," said Hatamura.

He added that Japan's traditional institutional culture needs to be changed because it failed to hone workers' individual skills and sense of initiative to handle a situation where the by-the-book response was useless.

After the outbreak of the Fukushima crisis, some NISA officials ran away from the site.

Kurokawa suggested Japanese regulators communicate and have more training programs with their peers in other countries to understand how they are regarded outside Japan.

Meanwhile, he also criticized the government for the lack of transparency in the process to choose the five commissioners for the new nuclear regulatory body that debuts this month.

The appointees must be approved by the Diet, but many lawmakers are dissatisfied with the lack of transparency and with some of the nominees, including Shunichi Tanaka, the candidate for chairman. He is a former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which promotes the nuclear industry.

Kurokawa said the public is skeptical about the appointment system and nominees partly because the process for choosing the candidates is unclear.

Kitazawa's private-sector commission released its final report in February, while the panels run by Kurokawa and Hatamura released theirs in July.

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