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tsunami approaches the plant area
On who’s to blame, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, “Needless to say, TEPCO is primarily responsible , but the state can’t escape blame because it promoted the use of nuclear power.” TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu said, "The accident was caused by the violence of nature---a tsunami caused by an unprecedented earthquake---and it is regrettable the crisis has escalated to such an extreme state of affairs."

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, There has also been widespread criticism in Japan that the regulators’ lack of independence contributed to clumsy response during the first days of the nuclear crisis. The government largely left the response up to the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, during a period the company now acknowledges that nuclear fuel was melting down in three of the plant’s reactors. Officials in the prime minister’s office have since complained that they were getting inadequate information from not only Tokyo Electric, but also from the government ministry in charge of nuclear power and regulators.

The Japanese government nuclear task force report acknowledged in June 2011 that bureaucratic red tape, and the division of responsibilities across several government agencies, had hampered the response to the accident. It said the government would separate the country's nuclear safety watchdog from the trade and industry ministry, a recommendation made earlier this month by a team of experts from the IAEA.

IAEA Report: Japan Underestimated Tsunami Danger

Martin Fackler wrote in New York Times that Japan underestimated the danger of tsunamis and failed to prepare adequate backup systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant according to a preliminary report on the nuclear crisis from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which also called for stronger regulatory oversight. The report did offer some praise, particularly to Japanese plant workers for braving dangerous conditions to try to bring the stricken plant under control. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

The report followed a weeklong inspection by the multinational team. Most of the problems that it cited had already been well documented. The team said it visited three nuclear plants damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, including Fukushima Daiichi. The report spoke highly of Japan’s handling of the crisis once it happened, calling the efforts of workers to regain control of the crippled reactors “exemplary.” The report also praised steps taken by Tokyo to protect the population from radiation, calling its evacuations of surrounding areas “impressive and extremely well organized.”

Its strongest criticism was aimed at the failure to build adequate protection against large waves for the plant, which sits on Japan’s tsunami-prone northeastern coastline. While the plant was designed to withstand waves of about 19 feet, the tsunami was as high as 46 feet, the report said. “The tsunami reached areas deep within the units, causing the loss of all power sources except one emergency diesel generator,” the report said, adding that a blackout of the commercial power grid left the plant with “little hope of outside assistance.”It also said the disaster exposed the lack of varied and redundant backup systems at the plant. The tsunami, which struck 46 minutes after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake, destroyed the emergency diesel generators at four of the plant’s six reactors. This left them with no other power source beyond batteries, which lasted only a few hours.

Once power was lost, critical functions like the cooling system shut down, as did the instruments that told workers what was happening inside the reactors. Three of the reactors quickly overheated, causing meltdowns that eventually led to explosions, which hurled large amounts of radioactive material into the air.The single surviving diesel generator allowed workers to maintain the cooling systems for the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors, which did not melt down. The No. 4 reactor had already been safely shut down when the earthquake hit, but its cooling pool was damaged by the tsunami. “The operators were faced with a catastrophic, unprecedented emergency scenario with no power, reactor control or instrumentation,” the report said. The tsunami also “severely affected communications systems both within and external to the site.” “They had to work in darkness with almost no instrumentation and control systems,” the report said of plant workers.

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tsunami strikes the plant area

Report: Fukushima Accident Shows Need to Prepare for the Unexpected

An interim report released in December 2011 by a government panel investigating the crisis at the Fukushima plant stated, Kyodo reported, that the accident shows the need to prepare for unexpected events if the consequences of them happening could be disastrous, referring to the poor emergency responses of the plant's operator and the government. The interim report said that many problems related to the crisis were linked to the absence of measures to deal with severe nuclear accidents caused by tsunami as well as the failure to assume that a nuclear crisis could occur in combination with a natural disaster. [Source: Kyodo, December 26, 2011]

"It cannot be denied that people who have been involved in nuclear disaster response and those in charge of managing and operating nuclear power plants have lacked the whole-picture viewpoint in nuclear disaster preparedness," the report said. "The nuclear disaster prevention program had serious shortfalls," and the fact that tsunami exceeding assumptions caused an extraordinary situation cannot be an excuse for inadequate management of a nuclear accident, it said. The remarks contrast with the outcome of an in-house investigation conducted by TEPCO, which blamed the larger-than-expected tsunami for the failure to prevent the nuclear accident.

The government's response during the early stage of the crisis was also problematic, with communications among officials at the prime minister's office insufficient and the emergency response center in the industry ministry not functioning well in performing its role of gathering information as stipulated in the nuclear disaster response manual.

Members of the industry ministry and the nuclear safety agency were "strongly frustrated by the lack of speed in information provision" by TEPCO, but even so they did not take action such as sending agency staff to the company's head office, the report said. The committee also said the government's evacuation order issued to residents around the plant was not specific so that it was tantamount to telling them to "just run." In some cases, residents were found to have taken an evacuation route where radioactive substances had spread.

The investigative committee that issued the report was led by Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. The report was issued after about 900 hours of hearings and interviews involving 456 people.

Report: Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency “Powerless to Handle Severe Accident'

An interim report released in December 2011 by a government panel investigating the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant stated that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and other governmental organizations failed to deal with the crisis effectively in their respective capacities and also failed to cooperate with each other. [Source: Shin Watanabe, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2011]

According to to the Yomiuri Shimbun the interim report by the government's investigation committee said the agency could hardly fulfill its function as the supervisory body in the wake of the accident, referring to its lack of self-awareness in dealing with the issue and actively collecting relevant information.

After the crisis began, the agency played the role of secretariat of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters set up at the Prime Minister's Office. It should have become the core organization for gathering information from various organizations, such as the power plant and its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. However, immediately after the accident, NISA relied on information obtained by staff dispatched by TEPCO's head office to the agency. The staff members got the information from TEPCO's head office by cell phone.

At that time, TEPCO's head office shared information with the local headquarters in Fukushima Prefecture in real time through a videoconference system. But the agency did not dispatch its officials to TEPCO's head office, which is only about 600 meters away from the agency's office. As the agency could not obtain sufficient information about the ongoing situation, the Prime Minister's Office apparently initiated its own direct contacts with TEPCO executives and the nuclear power plant staff. This situation led to a muddying of the command channels.

NISA's nuclear safety inspectors, who should have played the role of nuclear watchdog, apparently lacked a strong will to deal with the crisis. During the accident, four inspectors were at the nuclear power plant. But they temporarily evacuated around 5 a.m. on March 12. They returned to the plant the next morning, but left again on the evening of March 14 because of a hydrogen explosion at the No. 3 reactor before noon that day.

Report: Prime Minister's Office Caused Greater Confusion by Making Important Decisions Without Sufficient Consultations

An interim report released in December 2011 by a government panel investigating the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant stated that the Prime Minister's Office caused greater confusion by making important decisions without sufficient consultations with concerned organizations. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: As an example, the interim report described how then Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded to the injection of seawater into the No. 1 reactor on the night of March 12, one day after the Great East Japan Earthquake. He was later criticized for trying to stop the operation out of concern that it would cause a recriticality at the reactor. [Source: Shin Watanabe, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2011]

According to the interim report, the crisis management center in the basement of the Prime Minister's Office was already aware that the power plant had started the sea water injection when Kan and other top government officials--in the prime minister's working room on the fifth floor--were still discussing concerns about the possible recriticality without being informed of the fact.

The interim report suggested such confusion could have been prevented if the people in the prime minister's working room and the crisis management center had sufficient communication with each other. While continuing the discussions, Kan issued an instruction at 6:25 p.m. on March 12 that the evacuation zone should be expanded to a radius of 20 kilometers around the plant from the initially designated 10 kilometers. The interim report found the decision also was related to concerns about the possible recriticality, but the order was issued without consulting concerned ministries and agencies or local governments.

Areas outside the 10-kilometer zone had not been subject to emergency drills before the outbreak of the crisis. Therefore, authorities were not prepared at all to evacuate residents in the newly designated zones. Procedures for briefing concerned local governments and securing shelters were among the missing elements.

As a result, local governments near the crippled plant were forced to decide how to evacuate residents without sufficient information, according to the interim report. "Residents [near the plant] eventually became very distressed by the mixed messages they were getting," the report stated.

Panel Declares the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis “Man-Made”

In July 2012, Jiji Press reported: “An independent panel of the Diet concluded that the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011 was a "man-made" disaster rather than a natural one. Chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a former president of the Science Council of Japan, the inquiry panel included the judgment in a 640-page report. "The direct causes of the crisis were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011," when a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, the report said. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, however, was "incapable of withstanding" the huge disaster, it said.

“Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., the country's two nuclear regulatory bodies and the industry ministry "all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements," the report said. The Fukushima crisis "cannot be regarded as a natural disaster," Kurokawa said in the report's preface. "It was a profoundly man-made disaster.” [Ibid]

“The government, the regulators and TEPCO lacked a sense of responsibility for protecting people's lives and society, Kurokawa also said. "There were many opportunities" for the regulators--the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission--and TEPCO "to take measures that would have prevented the crisis," the report said. "But they did not do so." "They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization's self-interest," the report emphasized. [Ibid]

No. 2 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant N-plant 'Responded Better to Crisis'

The Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant---also operated by TEPCO--- responded better to the crisis according to a draft report by a government panel. After being struck by tsunami waves as high as nine meters the No. 2 plant--about 10 kilometers south of the No. 1 plant--found its sea water pumps and other equipment were damaged. "The No. 2 plant almost suffered the same fate as No. 1," plant chief Naohiro Masuda has recalled. Nonetheless, the plant was able to continue cooling its reactors. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 16, 2012]

“The panel's investigation found that workers at the No. 2 plant confirmed they would be able to take subsequent steps before they changed how they injected water into the reactors. They also kept an eye on the pressure and temperatures of the pressure suppression pools. One TEPCO employee working there at the time of the disaster told the panel it was "natural" for the plant to take those measures. [Ibid]

“By contrast workers at the No. 1 plant manually shut down the No. 3 reactor's emergency cooling system in the early hours of March 13. Cooling of the reactor remained suspended for more than six hours because they failed to secure an alternative way to inject water. At the No. 2 reactor, workers did not measure the pressure and temperatures in its pressure suppression pool--which is the lower portion of the reactor's containment vessel--until the early hours of March 14. This failure eventually caused the plant to be unable to lower the pressure in the reactor--a necessary step to inject water. [Ibid]

“The No. 1 plant's initial responses were less adequate than those by the No. 2 plant, regardless of the fact they faced different situations--such as whether external power supply was available," the final report is set to conclude. It will also call for these lessons to be reflected in reviewing measures to prevent the recurrence of a nuclear crisis. [Ibid]

TEPCO Ignored Warnings About a Disaster at Fukushima

“TEPCO had said in the past that a situation where all the nuclear reactors lost all their power sources would be "unthinkable," no matter how bad the disaster. This sentiment was echoed in 2007 by Haruki Madarame, now chairman of the government's Nuclear Safety Commission. He testified in a lawsuit trying to shut another nuclear power plant : "There needs to be a line drawn somewhere. It'd be impossible to design [a nuclear plant] if engineers had to consider every single possibility." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2011]

A report released by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) in 2010 predicted that if all power sources were lost due to an earthquake, fuel rods will begin melting after only 100 minutes. This report said a reactor's containment vessel would be damaged after about seven hours and a large amount of radioactive material would be released into the air. According to an analysis by the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, damage to the core of the Fukushima plant's No. 1 reactor started about two hours after the tsunami and its pressure vessel was damaged in about four hours--very close to what JNES had predicted. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun June 12, 2011]

One TEPCO official told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "We prioritized preparing for high-probability incidents, so we couldn't respond to everything." Wataru Sugiyama, a lecturer on nuclear power safety at Kinki University's Atomic Energy Research Institute, said, "From a cost-performance perspective, it's difficult to prepare for low-probability disasters and prevent all accidents."But by thinking about things after an accident, it's possible to prevent worse situations," he said. [Ibid]

Another issue was that the voices of workers at the plant did not reach the higher-ups. "Workers at the plant thought from before the quake that there was a risk all power could be lost if a tsunami flooded the emergency power generators," according to one TEPCO employee who has worked as an operator at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. But a former TEPCO executive who is now an adviser to the firm said, "If there was a risk of losing all power, why didn't workers present their views at board meetings? It's really too bad." [Ibid]

When asked why the government failed to act on tsunami warnings, industry minister Banri Kaieda said his ministry had blindly believed Japan's nuclear plants "were the safest in the world."

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1995 Paper Anticipated the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

A four-age paper penned in 1995 by Jinzaburo Takagi, an anti-nuclear scientist and former director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, warned about the dangers posed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and other old atomic plants in the face of powerful earthquakes and tsunamis and cautioned the government and utilities about their stance of not assessing safety risks for nuclear power stations beyond assumed scenarios. [Source: Kyodo]

Written in Japanese, the paper--- entitled "Nuclear Facilities and Emergencies---with Focus on Measures against Earthquakes"--- appeared in the October 1995 issue of the Physical Society of Japan, the journal of a physicists' group, after the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. Based on data from the Kobe quake and other sources, Takagi, a former associate professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, addressed in the paper issues related to anti-quake designs and the obsolescence of nuclear power plants as well as quake fault lines.

In the paper, Kyodo reported, Takagi blasted the government and power companies for "refusing to consider emergency measures in the event of an earthquake because they assume nuclear power plants will not break down in an earthquake and have stopped taking further steps at all." He also argued the Kobe Earthquake raised an alert about the lack of preparedness for emergency situations at nuclear power facilities, such as being "attacked by a tsunami along with a quake." “Discussions on the safety of nuclear power plants or disaster preparedness measures on the assumption of those situations occurring have been shunned, on the grounds that it is 'inappropriate' to make such assumptions or such discussions have some ulterior motive," he said.

The paper cited Fukushima Prefecture's Hamadori coastal region as one of the areas with a concentration of nuclear facilities that could face a situation "beyond what has been imagined" if a major earthquake strikes. The region hosts the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power stations of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Fukushima Daiichi is also referred to in the paper as an "obsolete nuclear power plant that raises the greatest concerns" and requires holding concrete discussions on its decommissioning.

Takagi (1938-2000) was the director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, which networks scientists, activists and citizens in seeking a nuclear-free world, from 1987 until 1998. He was known as a "citizen scientist" critical of "big" science and technology and nuclear power. Takagi received the Right Livelihood award, said to be an "alternative Nobel Prize." His books have gone through reprints since the March 11 disaster.

Warnings Based on Previous Earthquakes and Tsunamis

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Before March 11, scholars had repeatedly warned at academic conferences and other occasions that a massive tsunami could hit the Tohoku region in the future. However, the government's Central Disaster Management Council and TEPCO never factored such studies into their estimates of the damage that earthquakes and tsunami could cause to nuclear power plants. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

“Different experts had warned TEPCO on several occasions about the possibility of a massive tsunami striking the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Yukinobu Okamura, director of the Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center, harshly criticized TEPCO's plan to revise its seismic-resistant designs at the Fukushima No. 1 plant at a meeting of an expert panel under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry in June 2009. "This plan doesn't even mention the major tsunami that have happened in the past. I'm not convinced at all," he said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

“About 1,100 years ago, a gigantic earthquake caused tsunami that hit a wide swath of the coast of what is now Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, according to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, which oversees the Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center. Called the Jogan Tsunami, the waves reached about three kilometers or four kilometers inland in the Sendai Plain and other areas, according to the institute, but TEPCO's new plan made no mention of this historic natural disaster. The expert panel compiled a report the next month, but this also failed to refer to the Jogan Tsunami and concluded it was acceptable to put off making nuclear plants more able to withstand tsunami.” [Ibid]

TEPCO said there was not much evidence of the damage caused by the Jogan Earthquake. It was more appropriate, the utility said, to reference the Shioyazaki-oki Earthquake--a magnitude-7.9 temblor that hit Fukushima Prefecture in 1938 and caused much smaller tsunami than the March 11 earthquake--when estimating the damage earthquakes and tsunami could cause at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

Robert Geller, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert in seismology, said that if TEPCO and the government had referred to the study of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, they might have increased the size of tsunami they thought the Fukushima plant might encounter. The government and TEPCO should have taken the risk of tsunami more seriously, he added.

"This crisis at the power plant is not a natural disaster. It is a man-made disaster," Geller told the Yomiuri Shimbun. According to Geller, four earthquakes measuring magnitude-9 or stronger occurred in the 60 years to 2009. "In 2004, there was the Indian Ocean earthquake. [The government and TEPCO] should have been aware that similar earthquakes could occur anywhere," Geller said.

According to sources, people who tried to raise the alarm about the risks of tsunami were in the minority at TEPCO. Many thought it was enough to arm against earthquakes equivalent to the size of the Shioyazaki-oki Earthquake, they said. A former TEPCO executive once said: "Tsunami are a threat to ria coasts, such as the Sanriku coast. However, they're not a threat to straight coasts, such as the one where the Fukushima No. 1 power plant is located."

Warnings About Large Tsunamis

There are other examples of risks regarding earthquakes and tsunami being ignored. In its annual reports, which have been made public since 2008, the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) has predicted possible damage tsunami could cause to Mark-1 nuclear reactors that are about the same size as the Nos. 2 and 3 reactors at the Fukushima plant. One report said if a breakwater that extended up to 13 meters above sea level was hit by a 15-meter-high tsunami, all power sources would be knocked out--including outside electricity and emergency power generators. In such a situation, the report said, cooling functions would be lost and the reactor's core would be 100 percent damaged--a meltdown, in other words. The breakwater at the Fukushima No. 1 plant was about 5.5 meters high, less than half the assumed height in the JNES report. TEPCO assumed the tsunami hitting the plant would be 5.4 meters to 5.7 meters high. But the wave that struck on March 11 was 14 meters to 15 meters high.

“The Diet had also been made aware of the threat. In 2006, the House of Representatives member Hidekatsu Yoshii submitted a written question to the lower house asking whether the government fully grasped the possibility that the nation's nuclear power plants could lose all power due to an earthquake or tsunami. Yoshii belongs to the Japanese Communist Party. The response from the government was bureaucratic: "The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has inspected the safety of nuclear reactors, and the adequacy of its judgment has been confirmed by the Nuclear Safety Commission." [Ibid]

TEPCO Analysis of a Potential Tsunami

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The Yomiuri Shimbun reported in late August 2011 that TEPCO predicted in 2008 that a tsunami could reach a height of more than 15 meters at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, according to government sources, contradicting TEPCO's assertions that the size of the March 11 tsunami was "unpredictable." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 27, 2011]

In the 2008 assessment, according to a government investigation, TEPCO estimated that a 15.7-meter tsunami could hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the future, which was about the size of the March 11 tsunami. The utility came up with another estimate in December that year, modeled on the Jogan tsunami that hit northern Japan in 869. This estimate was 9.2 meters.However, TEPCO did not incorporate its 2008 assessment in its countermeasures against tsunami, and only reported its findings to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency on March 7 this year--four days before the March 11 disaster.

According to TEPCO, the assessment was made after the government's Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion released updated data on the probabilities of earthquakes in July 2002. TEPCO made its 2008 assessment based on the premise that an earthquake of the same magnitude as the Meiji Sanriku Earthquake in 1896, which is believed to have been magnitude-8.3, would occur off Fukushima Prefecture. It calculated the height of tsunami that might hit the Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear power plants in such an event.

The utility found that tsunami 8.4 meters to 10.2 meters high could strike near the Fukushima No. 1 plant's water-intake facility. It also predicted that the water would move inland and could reach a height of 15.7 meters above sea level at the Nos. 1 to 4 reactors, and 13.7 meters at the Nos. 5 and 6 reactors. TEPCO's 2008 assessment that a tsunami more than 10 meters high could strike the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was reported to an executive vice president and other senior executives at the company, according to sources. However, TEPCO did not take any specific measures based on the report.

According to Kyodo "Though TEPCO calculated in 2008 that a tsunami higher than 10 meters could hit the nuclear power plant, which was close to the actual level seen in the March disaster, it reported the calculation to the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency on March 7, 2011, just days before the massive quake hit northeastern Japan on March 11. [Source: Kyodo, October 25, 2011]

An interim report released in October 2011 by a TEPCO panel said TEPCO was justified in not utilizing the estimates to take measures against catastrophic tsunami. It said the estimates were "conceptual ones and were unsuitable to be used as bases for tsunami measurements." The draft defended a 2002 estimate made by the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, which envisaged a 5.7-meter tsunami hitting the power plant. TEPCO adopted this estimate in taking measures against tsunami at the power plant.The draft said this estimate was "based on the latest scientific findings, which have been recognized academically." "It was impossible for TEPCO to estimate the size of the [March 11] tsunami," the draft concluded.

Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency Secretly Calculated Worst-case Scenario of 'China Syndrome'

In October 2011, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency secretly calculated the possibility of a worst-case meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The agency was working on the calculations just as TEPCO was saying the nuclear fuel in three reactors at the plant was "slightly damaged." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 16, 2011]

The trial calculations were made under the premise that the nuclear fuel at the plant's No. 1 to No. 3 reactors would melt down entirely, developing into a so-called China syndrome, the worst-possible scenario. Coined in the United States, China syndrome refers to an imagined worst-case meltdown of nuclear fuel that burns through the bottom of a containment vessel and eventually through the Earth's crust until finally reaching China.

The trial calculations were carried out first on March 25, two weeks after the March 11 accident, followed by further calculations on April 6, 7 and 13. The fact that the calculations were carried out secretly was revealed Friday by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), an independent administrative institution, which had been commissioned by the agency to undertake the trial estimations.

The calculations indicated that if cooling water could not be injected, erosion could continue for more than 10 days, badly damaging the three-meter thick concrete walls of the Nos. 2 and 3 reactors' containment vessels, the JNES said. The erosion of the bottom of the No. 1 reactor's containment vessel bottom would possibly stop after the vessel wall was eroded to a depth of 1.8 meters in eight days, according to the calculations.

Kan Blames TEPCO and Lack of Preparation

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flood in electric room
After stepping down as prime minister Kan told the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Fukushima crisis should be considered a "man-made disaster," and poor communication with the plant's operator hindered the initial government response."There in fact were various opinions [regarding the safety of the plant] before the accident, but no well-thought-out preparations were made," he said. "In that sense, the nuclear accident should be considered a man-made disaster." He said the government’s two nuclear watchdogs had been "unable to foresee the possibility that all power sources could be lost" at the nuclear complex. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 7, 2011]

As a result, neither the agency nor the commission could deal effectively with the circumstances that arose after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling systems, he said. Kan said, the “accident was beyond our expectations, so there were no preparations to cope with it properly. It had been assumed there was no possibility the plant's power sources would be lost, so it was only natural that we were one step behind as the crisis unfolded.”

Kan said there also were problems with the flow of information from the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. The former prime minister said he ended up calling Masao Yoshida, the head of the plant, in a bid to gauge what was actually happening.

Kan revealed that the off-site emergency response center near the plant, though supposed to serve as a front-line command center in the event of a crisis, was vacated soon after the accident. "As a result, arrangements that had been assumed in accident simulations hardly worked at all," said Kan, who stepped down late last month.

Kan was frustrated by the lack of details TEPCO provided soon after the disaster. "Although I instructed the utility to vent [vapor in the nuclear reactor containers], TEPCO failed to do this, and I wasn't told of the reasons for that failure," he said. "Even as I sought an explanation for this situation, I couldn't tell whose decisions I was being given. It was like a game of Chinese whispers."

Kan visited Fukushima Prefecture on Aug. 27, the day after he officially announced he would resign as prime minister. He conveyed to the prefectural governor his view that people in some radiation-affected areas might be unable to return to their homes for a long period.

Problems with Japan’s Nuclear Watchdog

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IAEA inspectors
Many blame Japan’s nuclear watchdog Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency for not doing its job by being too cozy with Japan’s utilities and nuclear establishment and playing an adversarial rile. Eisaku Sato, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture from 1988 to 2006 and an opponent of nuclear power told the New York Times: ''An organization that is inherently untrustworthy is charged with ensuring the safety of Japan's nuclear plants,'' said Mr. Sato, governor from 1988 to 2006. ''So the problem is not limited to Tokyo Electric, which has a long history of cover-ups, but it's the whole system that is flawed. That's frightening.'' [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson; Kantaro Suzuki and Noriko Takata, New York Times, March 22, 2011]

“Like many critics of Japan's nuclear industry, Mr. Sato attributed weak oversight to a conflict of interest that he said essentially stripped the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of its effectiveness,” the New York Times reported. “The agency, which is supposed to act as a watchdog, is under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has a general policy of encouraging the development of Japan's nuclear industry.

“The ministry and the agency, in turn, share cozy ties with Tokyo Electric and other operators---some of which offer lucrative jobs to former ministry officials in a practice known as ''amakudari,'' or descent from heaven.” ''They're all birds of a feather,'' Mr. Sato, 71, said in an interview at his home in Koriyama, in Fukushima Prefecture.

Among the things the agency is criticized of doing is easily approving the extended life of old nuclear plants beyond the time they were supposed to be decommissioned. But critics say the approval process for extending the lifespan of reactors is fraught with problems. Limited amounts of information are disclosed before approval is granted. The government reviews only reports submitted by utilities, and does not conduct its own tests to determine whether those reports are true, according to Chihiro Kamisawa, a nuclear safety researcher at the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, Japan's most vocal nuclear watchdog.

The Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, which is supposed to provide a second layer of scrutiny, is understaffed and largely an advisory group. Masatoshi Toyoda, a former vice president at Tokyo Electric who, among other jobs, ran the company's nuclear safety division, said the organization should be strengthened. The United States had a similar setup until the 1970s, when Congress broke up the old Atomic Energy Commission into the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

''Like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, they should have full-time engineers who should check the safety of power plants,'' Mr. Toyoda said. ''I've been telling the government that the system should be changed, but any changes to Japan's nuclear policy take a long time.''

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said that ''there are no problems with the current safety setup.'' He added that the extension of the life of Reactor No. 1 ''was approved on the understanding that any problems found would be fixed by Tokyo Electric.''

“After the March 11 disaster, the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency waited about a month before taking any action regarding tsunami. Only on April 9, two days after a magnitude-7.1 aftershock hit the Tohoku region, did the agency instruct power companies to ensure each nuclear plant have at least two emergency generators that would remain functional after a natural disaster. “[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2011]

Overconfidence About the Safety of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants

A "safety myth" existed that the superior technology of Japan nuclear plants made them impervious to accidents and this overconfidence was behind this failure to fully implement preparations for severe accidents. Safety inspection guidelines the NSC revised in 1990 said, "We do not need to take into account the danger of a long-term power severance, as we could anticipate recovery of power transmission lines and emergency generators in a short period of time."[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2011]

The first sentence of a TEPCO report from March 1994 on action to be taken in the event of a serious accident said, "Our country's nuclear power plants have attained a high degree of safety from a global point of view." The report emphasized, "It is inconceivable that a severe accident could actually occur." The report seemed to imply that efforts to prevent an "inconceivable" [Ibid] accident would be a waste of time and energy. "The NSC's guidelines for coping with a severe accident were left unchanged since they were set in 1992, and no additional steps were taken," said a preliminary government report on the Fukushima crisis submitted June 7 to the International Atomic Energy Agency. [Ibid]

Japan was a leader in spreading a culture of safety at nuclear power plants around the world. From 1992 to 2001 the Japanese government accepted about 1,000 trainees from nations of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. "We believed Japan's nuclear plants were top class. But there was probably a bit of overconfidence there," said a former top TEPCO official told the Yomiuri Shimbun. [Ibid] ▪"You can take all kinds of possible situations into consideration, but something 'beyond imagination' is bound to take place, like the March 11 tsunami," said the former plant operator. "The possibility of a worst-case scenario should have been assumed, and there should have been a reliable system in place with proper training to keep damage to a minimum." [Ibid]

Japan’s Cozy Nuclear Power Village

"The 'nuclear power village'--the promoters of atomic energy--was behind both the cause and expansion of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant," Tetsunari Iida, head of the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "They lack sufficient knowledge and technology, and the safety inspections they conduct are totally inadequate." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 16, 2011]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The nuclear power village is the nickname for a tight circle of government entities, utilities, manufacturers and others involved in the promotion of nuclear power who believe nuclear plants are safe and reject out of hand any opposing views. Iida used the term "genshiryoku mura" (nuclear power village) in a magazine opinion piece in 1997, and it has now entered the vernacular. Mura means village, but also refers to a small, closed community.” [Ibid]

“The 52-year-old executive director said he realized the nature of the cozy ties among the members of the nuclear power village more than two decades ago. At the time, he worked in the private sector as an engineer in charge of radiation safety evaluations at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. had commissioned Toshiba Corp. to do the job, and Toshiba subcontracted it to Iida's firm. His company's safety analyses were submitted to Toshiba, then to TEPCO and finally to the then International Trade and Industry Ministry.Iida recalled being shocked when he once saw a safety assessment released by the ministry. The report's cover had been changed, but the contents were almost identical to one prepared by Iida and his fellow engineers. "They didn't do their own checks of our analyses or confirm whether things were really safe. No wonder accidents happen," Iida said.” [Ibid]

“The nuclear village has thrived under the government's treatment of nuclear energy as "national policy run by the private sector." The central government promotes nuclear power with subsidies and other support, and private utilities handle the building and operating of nuclear facilities. The nuclear-related portion of the national budget amounts to about 430 billion yen a year, and utilities invest 2 trillion yen every year in nuclear power.” [Ibid]

History of Japan’s Nuclear Power Village

“The nuclear village really started to grow after the 1973 oil crisis,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. “Since then, the planning and construction of nuclear plants across the nation was promoted under the banner of "energy security." After the 1974 accident in which radiation leaked from the nuclear-powered ship Mutsu, the government established the Nuclear Safety Commission in 1978 to oversee the then Science and Technology Agency, which conducted basic research and development on nuclear power and the nation's nuclear policy. The science agency also contained a bureau that was in charge of nuclear safety regulations at the time.” [Ibid]

“However, the 2001 restructuring of government ministries and agencies scaled back such regulatory bodies. The Natural Resources and Energy Agency that promotes nuclear power and industry regulator Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency were both placed under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, the successor of MITI. This only encouraged a tighter relationship between two bodies with conflicting tasks. The parts of the science agency that had led nuclear power development were divided and merged into the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, the revamped Nuclear Safety Commission and other entities. "The Science and Technology Agency was small and powerless, so it wasn't very dependable," a senior official of a heavy industries company said.” [Ibid]

“This system of having promoters and regulators under the same roof has been criticized for years, but prior to the Fukushima crisis, no administration had been keen to separate them. At a October 2007 House of Councillors Budget Committee session, then industry minister Akira Amari of the Liberal Democratic Party, rebuffed calls for splitting the bodies up. "We'll promote nuclear power while stepping on the brakes at the same time. Double checks can be done by the Nuclear Safety Commission," he said.” [Ibid]

Breaking Up Japan’s Nuclear Power Village

“But destroying the nuclear village is no easy task,” according to the Yomiuri Shimbun. “The community involves heavy back-scratching and complex personnel relationships. NISA was formed in the streamlining of the government. Although the agency was once headed by a former Science and Technology Agency official, its top posts are usually filled by former MITI bureaucrats--nuclear power promoters--including current agency head Nobuaki Terasaka. Also, NISA has accepted 80 on-loan employees of power utilities and other nuclear-related firms. One former Toshiba Corp. employee even served as a safety inspector at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which uses Toshiba-made reactors. Former NSC Chairman Atsuyuki Suzuki, who worked as a regulator at the troubled prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, last year became head of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of Monju.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 16, 2011]

“Electric power firms have deepened relations with the bureaucracy by temporarily dispatching employees to government bodies and giving cushy jobs to retired bureaucrats in the so-called amakudari (descending from heaven) practice. Since 2000, power companies have sent at least 100 employees to central government bodies for on-loan postings, according to the government. These government bodies include the NSC and other offices involved in safety at nuclear plants. TEPCO, which has sent 32 workers to the government, had de facto reserved seats at several posts, sources said.” [Ibid]

“Meanwhile, 68 former industry ministry officials have parachuted into postretirement jobs as executive board members or advisers at 12 of the nation's power companies over the past five decades, according to the industry ministry. Toru Ishida, former director general of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, an industry ministry-related body, became an adviser at TEPCO in January. He left his post at the utility at the end of April after his amakudari move was heavily criticized in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. He was seen as likely to become a TEPCO vice president.” [Ibid]

“As of May 2, there were still 13 former industry ministry officials working at TEPCO and 10 other power companies. To cut these cozy ties, former NSC Chairman Shojiro Matsuura said the members of the nuclear power village "must reflect on their actions as academics in terms of ethics and safety consciousness." "They need to stop being a closed clique and turn themselves into a group of trusted professionals," Matsuura said.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: TEPCO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated October 2012

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