News | Fukushima Daiichi

A 'manmade' accident

3 September 2012

A commission set up by the Japanese congress following the Fukushima-Daiichi incident has published a damning report of the Japanese nuclear industry. Although it criticises TEPCO for putting self-interest above public safety, its prime targets seem to be the Japanese government, in particular the nuclear regulator (NISA).

An English translation of the report’s executive summary was published in early July. To produce the report, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission held 900 hours of hearings, took nine trips to nuclear power plants, three trips abroad, held three town hall meetings, visited 12 affected municipalities, and surveyed displaced residents and Fukushima Daiichi accident workers. The 10-member group was made up of two medical doctors, two scientists (a seismologist and chemist), two lawyers, a diplomat, a local resident, a businessperson and a journalist.

The report states that the commission found that the relationship between the government regulator NISA and the utility TEPCO before the accident amounted to ‘regulatory capture’, in which NISA basically allowed TEPCO to regulate itself.

“We found evidence that the regulatory agencies would explicitly ask about the operators’ intentions whenever a new regulation was to be implemented. For example, NISA informed the operators that they did not need to consider a possible station blackout (SBO) because the probability was small and other measures were in place. It then asked the operators to write a report that would give the appropriate rationale for why this consideration was unnecessary. In order to get evidence of this collusion, the commission was forced to exercise our legislative right to demand such information from NISA, after NISA failed to respond to several requests.”

It said that NISA did not follow international best practice, for example by not forcing implementation of the USA’s B.4.b. requirements imposed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Because it allowed severe accident mitigation measures to be voluntary, some (unnamed) equipment had lower capacity than safety equipment used in normal operation, the report states.

In other areas, the commission argues that NISA allowed some regulatory requirements to be voluntary, and others to be delayed, such as earthquake resistance checks (‘the anti-seismic back-check’). In 2006, NISA required these reports by 2009; although TEPCO produced interim reports in June 2009, they were incomplete. According to the report, TEPCO decided internally to delay completion of the reports until 2016. Although NISA’s assessments of its interim reports told TEPCO that it had a lot of work to do, none of it was carried out on units 1-3 by March 2011.

The commission report argues that Japanese utilities lobbied through the domestic Federation of Electrical Power Companies to avoid, compromise or postpone actions that threatened continued operation of nuclear power plants.

“Despite the fact that constant vigilance is needed to keep up with evolving international standards on earthquake safeguards, Japan’s electric power operators have repeatedly and stubbornly refused to evaluate and update existing regulations, including back-checks and back-fitting. The Japanese nuclear industry has fallen behind the global standard of earthquake and tsunami preparedness, and failed to reduce the risk of severe accidents by adhering to the five layers of the defense-in-depth strategy.

“The Commission’s examination of the way safety regulations are deliberated and amended reveals a cozy relationship between the operators, the regulators and academic scholars that can only be described as totally inappropriate. In essence, the regulators and the operators prioritized the interests of their organizations over the public’s safety, and decided that Japanese nuclear power plant reactor operations ‘will not be stopped.’”

The report also paints a grim picture of disorganisation and distrust during the accident. An off-site emergency centre was out of action because of lack of power; TEPCO didn’t report the poor status of the unit 1 vent to NISA or the Prime Minister’s office; when the Prime Minister’s office consequently went to site to issue directions itself, it broke the emergency management chain of command, which led to greater confusion.

The report’s six sections cover pre-accident safety, accident escalation, damage, emergency response, organisational and legal issues.

A sense of outrage came through at times, even in the English translation of the executive summary: “Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety. We found a habit of adherence to conditions based on conventional procedures and prior practices, with a priority on avoiding risk to the organization. We found an organization-driven mindset that prioritized benefits to the organization at the expense of the public.”

In a frank personal message, commission chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor and former president of the Science Council of Japan, states that, although the report is very critical of some individuals and companies, its purpose is to not to lay blame on certain individuals, but to ‘reflect deeply on fundamental causes’:

“For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey— especially to a global audience—is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster. What must be admitted—very painfully—is that this was a disaster ‘made in Japan.’ 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 programme’; our groupism; and our insularity. Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.”

Author Info:

This article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

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Box: What Japan's Advisory Committee said


1. Start monitoring of the nuclear regulatory body by the national Diet (congress)

2. Reform the crisis management system

3. Begin public health initiatives, including dealing with effects of long-term public health issues, such as stress-related illnesses; continued monitoring of hot spots; establish decontamination & decommissioning project

4. Start monitoring operators and develop a new relationship with them, with clear boundaries. Reform of TEPCO should include prioritisation of safety, changing its stance on information disclosure, and prioritising the role of the site

5. New regulatory body must be independent, transparent, professional, consolidated and proactive

6. Nuclear energy laws should be thoroughly reformed to meet global standards of safety, public health and welfare. They should include back-fit requirements

7. Develop a system for appointing independent investigation commissions for reactor decommissioning, spent fuel issues, limiting accident effects, and decontamination

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