At 10:13am on 16 July, an earthquake rocked large stretches of northern Japan with a Richter scale magnitude of 6.8. The tremor was sufficiently large to be given its own title, the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu-Oki Earthquake, and caused the deaths of 11 people across the region and injuries to 2000 more residents. It buckled roads, brought down homes, bridges and power lines and left railways twisted and covered with debris from landslides.

The epicentre of the quake was a mere 16km from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco’s) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, with a capacity of 8212MWe the largest in the world. Three of the facility’s reactors were shut down for periodic inspections, but the ferocity of the earthquake was such that the remaining four were automatically halted. And while the automatic shutdown system worked as it is designed to, the people who had created Kashiwazaki-Kariwa had not expected it to be required to withstand such a shock (see NEI September 2007, p4).

In one part of the plant, the quake recorded a seismic acceleration of 680gal (cm/s2) – far greater than the 273gal that area of the plant was designed to survive. Within minutes, a fire had broken out in a transformer in unit 3, radioactive water had leaked from unit 6, and radioactive material was released into the air from the main stack of reactor 7. Over the next 10 days, 67 problems were reported within the plant, which covers 4.2km2 on the coast of the Sea of Japan.

Unfortunately for Tepco – the third largest electric utility company in the world – questions were soon being raised by the media, local residents, the prefecture government and environmental groups about precisely what had happened, why it had happened and why the company had not been prepared for an earthquake on such a scale.

Very quickly, and based on the perception that the company and national government had been reluctant to reveal the true scale of problems in previous incidents at nuclear power plants, the belief grew that once again, Tepco and the authorities were not coming clean about what had happened in Niigata. And with the loss of trust in the official line that a mere 9×104Bq of radioactivity had been released from unit 6 and a further 4×108Bq from unit 7, Tepco immediately found itself on the back foot in the public relations campaign.

“The response of the operator was not sufficient,” claimed Philip White, the international liaison officer for the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre. “It took two hours to extinguish a fire in a transformer in unit 3 and it took nearly eight hours from discovering a pool of water before reporting to the authorities that it was radioactive and that some had leaked out to sea. These examples reveal Tepco’s inability to respond to earthquake-induced disasters.”

Similarly, he believes, the government failed to react adequately and in a timely manner, despite the current back-checks on Japan’s nuclear power plants to ensure they meet earthquake resistance guidelines that went into force in September 2006.

“All Japan’s nuclear power plants pre-date the new guidelines,” said White. “As has been shown by the Chuetsu-Oki Earthquake, the old earthquake safety assessments were flawed. That means the safety of all of Japan’s nuclear power plants is in doubt. Why then has the government not ordered them all to be shut down until their safety has been confirmed?”

Negative publicity

Japan’s nuclear industry has been suffering in the glare of negative publicity brought about by revelations that operators had covered up accidents and problems for decades. When it became public knowledge, it was hoped that the public relations disaster that companies were engineering for themselves might lead the wider industry to realise the potential benefits of being more open and honest when problems do crop up. That hope seems to have withered again in Niigata.

“More information was provided this time, although it would be an exaggeration to say that the nuclear industry had become transparent,” said White. “The authorities and operators have learned that when data cover-ups are exposed their image is seriously damaged and that it is often better to divulge information rather than be found out later.

“However, they have not learned to reflect on the real implications of the problems,” he added. “The real implications of this earthquake are that nuclear power is not safe in Japan.”

Other critics include Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a professor at Kobe University’s Research Center for Urban Safety and Security and a specialist in earthquake seismology. He told a press conference in Tokyo on 20 July that even guidelines set last year on designs for plants to withstand earthquakes “are still insufficient and have several loopholes.”

“They need to be reviewed again,” he said, adding that unless “fundamental improvements in nuclear plant earthquake countermeasures are made, Japan will suffer from a catastrophe in the near future.”

Undaunted by the criticism, the Japanese government remains committed to a policy of nuclear power and, in the days after the quake, attempted to accentuate the positives and demonstrate that it is being firm with operators.

“The actions taken by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) were to immediately send the minister and agency officials to the site to conduct surveys and meet Tepco officials and we ordered them to report on various matters,” said Akira Fukushima, deputy director general for safety examination at NISA, which is under the ministry.

“On 20 July, in light of the fact that a fire broke out at the nuclear reactor site and reports to authorities were considerably delayed, the minister ordered all operators of nuclear power plants in Japan to immediately investigate their situation in regard to the possibility of fires and identify any problems with communication systems,” he said.

Tepco was specifically ordered to find out why the onsite fire-fighting equipment had failed to work adequately and report when it had improved the system, including possibly installing a chemical fire engine to deal with a possible oil fire, as well as find out why there was a delay in the radioactive leak being reported to the ministry, stressed Fukushima.

The ministry approved a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) examining the plant, announced that a report on the incident would be presented to the Senior Regulators’ Meeting at the upcoming IAEA General Conference and that Japan would host a workshop to provide assistance and advice to other operators that have facilities in areas that are prone to earthquakes.

Simultaneously, a new committee under NISA was set up to determine ways to improve emergency systems, reporting and public relations, among other tasks. Headed by Haruki Madarame, a professor at Tokyo University, the panel held its first meeting on 31 July.

But responding to an editorial in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun business newspaper that criticised the nuclear industry for having a “village mentality” that can only be reversed with the introduction of an independent watchdog body, Fukushima effectively admitted that there is a conflict of interests in the present situation, but defended his organisation: “First of all, our job is of course to make sure that the nuclear industry is promoted, but we would never think of promoting the industry without thinking of safety first.”

He also confirmed that the ministry has never refused to grant a licence for the construction of a nuclear plant, although he pointed out that in many cases improvements or enhancements are required to a plan before work can begin.

Tepco officials have had plenty of practice in apologising in the last month, with chief nuclear officer Ichiro Takekuro telling reporters that the company regretted the delay in reporting the damage and for the concerns it had caused. However, Takekuro, who is also Tepco executive vice president, defended the actions of his employees, saying the quake made relaying information difficult and that it took time to locate water that had spilled out of a tank and then confirm that it was radioactive. “I believe the workers at the power plant made the maximum effort to get the information out given the timeframe they had to work with,” he said.

“Tepco deeply regrets the damage caused by the Niigata Chuetsu-Oki Earthquake,” said Takuya Ito, a spokesman for the company. “The earthquake significantly exceeded the level of seismic activity for which the plant was designed, but four units automatically shut down at the time of the earthquake – which means that the most important function of the nuclear power plant, ‘to ensure safety in all conceivable circumstances’ – performed properly.”

Ito said problems were reported on a daily basis to the authorities but that in future the company would try to announce them on a case-by-case basis whenever they were discovered to avoid the perception that they were being concealed. He emphasised that efforts had been made to keep local communities informed of the situation and that the company has a new policy of “thorough disclosure” that will help it work with local people to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant and protect the peace of mind of residents.

“Tepco has lost the credibility of society, including local communities, by data-tampering at power generation facilities, even though the understanding and support of the local community are important to operating a nuclear power plant,” he said. “Reflecting deeply on this situation, we will create a corporate culture and system that ensures safety and product quality. We will create a corporate culture that facilitates communications and proactively listen to their concerns to restore our credibility.”

Those who are opposed to nuclear energy in Japan are not optimistic that even a crisis on this scale will be enough to arouse public opinion and bring sufficient pressure to bear on the government or industry.

“I don’t think there will be any really huge implications for the industry and the nuclear lobby is so strong in government that I cannot see these kinds of scandals having an effect on long-term nuclear energy policy,” said Aileen Mioko Smith, of the Kyoto-based environmental organisation Green Action.

Errors of judgement

Tepco was guilty of three major errors of judgement in the immediate aftermath of the quake, Smith believes. The first mistake was not communicating the scale of the problem to the local people – she said Tepco officials could have simply gone into the towns with megaphones to keep people informed. Secondly, trying to cover up the impact of the quake on the facility, such as by allegedly having workers lay gravel over cracks in the ground and taking down lamp posts that were damaged, is tantamount to destruction of evidence, she claimed.

Smith was also outraged at the announcement by Professor Madarame, chairman of the investigation committee established by Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, that the plant should be ready to restart in a year or so. That decision is based on an investigation that lasted a mere three days and concluded that the damage was less severe than initially expected. Supported by a new group with the title The Committee of Scientists and Engineers Calling for the Closure of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, Smith said the public is being conditioned to accept the plant restarting before the experts even completely understand the scale of the problem.

Some critics claim the biggest error of all was building the plant at all given the seismic activity in its locality, compounded by not being prepared to deal with an earthquake with a magnitude of more than 6. CNIC’s White agrees. “It is now clear that Tepco’s original seismic analysis was flawed,” he said. “However, it is now apparent that the data available at the time indicated much longer earthquake fault lines than Tepco identified. It also appears that there is an earthquake fault running right beneath the plant. On this basis, it is clear that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant should never have been built in the first place.”

On August 19 – and perhaps learning from Tepco’s experiences – another utility, Chugoku Electric Power, announced that it would reassess the earthquake resistance of its Shimane nuclear power station, which sits atop an area known to have ten active fault lines in order to “retain the trust of local people.”

Just one day later, Tepco was forced to reduce electricity supplies for industrial uses as a result of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant being out of action, the first time it has had to resort to such drastic measures in 17 years.

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