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Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is the main electricity provider and power company in Japan. Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times: It is difficult to overstate the influence of TEPCO, which rivals the American defense industry in its domestic reach. Thanks to a virtual monopoly and a murky electricity pricing system, it has become one of the biggest sources of loosely regulated cash for politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, who have repaid TEPCO with unquestioning support and with the type of lax oversight that contributed to the nuclear crisis. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, November 17, 2011]

The interim report also referred to a possible reason why hydrogen explosions occurred at the Nos. 1 and 3 reactors. The report said silicon rubber used to seal the spaces between doors and wall, and between the containment vessels and their lids, may have not functioned properly due to the high temperatures, opening gaps that allowed the release of hydrogen into the reactor building.

The panel defended the company's slow initial response to the nuclear disaster, such as preparations to vent steam from reactor, by saying, "It can't be helped that that [the initial response] took time, as workers had to prepare in the darkness."The interim report said the nuclear reactor's major equipment sustained no damage due to the earthquake itself, but instruments ensuring the safety of the nuclear reactors lost their functions simultaneously due to tsunami, worsening the situation exponentially.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan Blames TEPCO and Lack of Preparation for the Fukushima Disaster

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.

TEPCO’s Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

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government leaders meet
Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Kan’s critics and supporters alike say his suspicions of TEPCO were well-founded. In the early days after the March 11 disaster, TEPCO shared only limited information with the prime minister’s office, trying instead to play down the risks at the plant, they said.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“Yet the Kan government essentially left the handling of the nuclear crisis in the crucial first three days to TEPCO, focusing instead on relief efforts for the hundreds of thousands left homeless, Mr. Terada and other aides said. Then on March 14, the gravity of the plant’s situation was revealed by a second explosion, this time at Reactor No. 3, and a startling request that night from TEPCO’s president, Masataka Shimizu: that TEPCO be allowed to withdraw its employees from the plant because it had become too dangerous to remain.”

“When he heard this, Mr. Kan flew into a rage, said aides and advisers who were present. Abandoning the plant would mean losing control of the four stricken reactors; the next day, explosions occurred at the two remaining active reactors, No. 2 and No. 4. “This is not a joke,” the prime minister yelled, according to the aides. They said Mr. Kan convened an emergency meeting early on March 15, asking advisers what more could be done to save the reactors. Then he gave TEPCO barely two hours’ warning that he planned to visit the company.”

At 5:30 a.m., Mr. Kan marched into TEPCO headquarters and stationed one of his most trusted aides, Goshi Hosono, there to keep tabs on the company. Mr. Kan gave a five-minute impromptu pep talk, said his aide, Mr. Terada. “Withdrawing from the plant is out of the question,” Mr. Kan told them. Advisers said the placement of Mr. Hosono in TEPCO was a turning point, helping the prime minister to take direct control of damage-control efforts at the plant. “For the first time, we knew what TEPCO was debating, and what they knew,” said one adviser, who asked not to be identified.

However, even Mr. Kan’s supporters acknowledge that the move came too late. “We should have moved faster,” said Masanori Aritomi, a nuclear engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an adviser to Mr. Kan. Mr. Aritomi said that even with Mr. Hosono stationed inside TEPCO, the company still did not disclose crucial information until mid-May, including final confirmation that three of the plant’s four active reactors had melted down.

Nuclear Power Plant Safety

A nuclear reactor is an enormous and extremely complex apparatus made up of 30,000 to 40,000 parts. Fuel rods which create thermal energy inside a nuclear power plant reach extremely high temperatures and contain a large quantity of radioactive material. Therefore, various safety measures are implemented at nuclear power plants to prevent such hazardous material from leaking outside. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 17, 2011]

The safety measures are based on three basic principles--stopping, cooling and confining. When pressure inside a nuclear reactor increases rapidly due to abnormal nuclear fission or for other reasons, stopping the reactor is the top priority. All control rods are inserted simultaneously to automatically stop the reactor. If that fails to bring operations to a halt, a large quantity of solution containing boric acid--which absorbs neutrons--is poured inside the reactor to stop nuclear fission.”

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Sometimes the coolant water inside a nuclear reactor is lost for some reason. To prepare for such an eventuality, reactors are equipped with an emergency core cooling system (ECCS), which pours a large quantity of water inside the reactor to cool the fuel rods. Reactors are also equipped with a device that lowers the pressure inside the reactor in order to cool extremely hot steam that has leaked into the containment vessel.”

“The last layer of defense in terms of nuclear plant safety measures is the structure in which radioactive material is encased, comprising five protective layers. Firstly, pieces of uranium fuel are fired into pellets, as with ceramics, so that radioactive material produced as a result of nuclear fission is confined in the fuel rods. Secondly, the pieces of fuel are encased in tubes made of a zirconium alloy, capable of enduring extreme heat. As long as the tubes are not damaged, the radioactive material in the fuel rods will not leak outside.”

“The third is a pressure vessel made of thick steel. Even if the tubes are ruptured, the cylindrical vessel can keep radioactive material contained inside the valves. The fourth is a steel containment vessel that houses the pressure vessel, pipes, control rods, recirculation pumps and other key components. Around the containment vessel there are pools to store used fuel rods and various control devices. These are housed within the outer containment building. The building's walls comprise the fifth layer of protection. They are made of one- to two-meter-thick concrete, which prevents radioactive rays from leaking to the external environment. For extra safety, the building has no windows.”

Breakdown of Nuclear Power Plant Safety at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

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flood in electric room
When the earthquake occurred, reactors Nos. 1, 2 and 3 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were in operation. Immediately after the huge tremor, the control rods were automatically deployed and the reactors were stopped. Events up until this stage were following their predicted course. However, fuel rods continue to give off extreme heat for a long time, even after reactors have ceased operating. Such heat could cause the coolant water inside the reactor to boil, leading to the risk of the reactor boiling dry. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 17, 2011]

The ECCS system is designed to prevent this from occurring. The system circulates water inside the reactor using electric power from sources other than the nuclear power plant itself, and also features a doughnut-shaped structure called a suppression pool, to cool high-pressure steam into water. Spent fuel rods removed from reactors need to be kept permanently cooled with circulating water.

However, in the Fukushima No. 1 plant, power generators for operating the ECCS system broke down. Although the generators were designed to keep operating even after very strong tremors, the tsunami that struck the plant on Friday was of a scale beyond what had been anticipated, and might have thrown seawater on the generators, nuclear experts said.

The temperature began to rise rapidly inside the reactor, which had lost its cooling functions. As a result, the metal tubes containing the fuel rods, comprising the second layer of protection, began melting down. In addition, the melted alloy caused a chemical reaction with the water, leading to a discharge of hydrogen. The hydrogen likely reacted with oxygen in the air inside the building, and it was this that caused the explosions. As a result, the No. 1 reactor building lost a large part of its walls, which constituted the fifth protection layer.

In the damaged reactors, the temperature continued to rise and a huge quantity of coolant water evaporated, leading to the risk that the exposed parts of the fuel rods above the water may melt. Although Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers poured seawater into the reactors using pump vehicles, the operation did not go smoothly due to the fear of contamination from radioactive material. Meanwhile, water used to cool spent fuel rods in the No. 4 reactor could no longer be circulated due to the loss of power. It is feared that exposure of the fuel rods to the air sparked a fire that led to leakage of the radioactive material contained therein.

Failure of TEPCO to Take Anti-Tsunami Measures

The Fukushima nuclear power plant was built to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and a 5.7-meter-high tsunami. The March 11 earthquake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale and the tsunami was over 10 meters high.

The Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of tsunamis. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants began dotting the Japanese coastline. Just a month before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami government regulators approved a 10-year extension for the oldest of the six reactors at Fukushima despite warnings about its safety. Several weeks after the extension was granted, the company admitted that it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment related to the cooling systems, including water pumps and diesel generators, at the power station’s six reactors. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz, New York Times, March 26, 2011]

Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz wrote in the New York Times, “Japanese government and utility officials have repeatedly said that engineers could never have anticipated the magnitude 9.0 earthquake ...that caused the sea bottom to shudder and generated the huge tsunami. Even so, seismologists and tsunami experts say that according to readily available data, an earthquake with a magnitude as low as 7.5 — almost garden variety around the Pacific Rim — could have created a tsunami large enough to top the bluff at Fukushima.”

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Damage at another reactor in 2007
“After an advisory group issued nonbinding recommendations in 2002, TEPCO... raised its maximum projected tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi to between 17.7 and 18.7 feet — considerably higher than the 13-foot-high bluff. Yet the company appeared to respond only by raising the level of an electric pump near the coast by 8 inches, presumably to protect it from high water.” “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent,” said Tsuneo Futami, a former Tokyo Electric nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s. “When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”

“The intensity with which the earthquake shook the ground at Fukushima also exceeded the criteria used in the plant’s design...Japan is known for its technical expertise. For decades, though, Japanese officialdom and even parts of its engineering establishment clung to older scientific precepts for protecting nuclear plants, relying heavily on records of earthquakes and tsunamis, and failing to make use of advances in seismology and risk assessment since the 1970s.”

“For some experts, the underestimate of the tsunami threat at Fukushima is frustratingly reminiscent of the earthquake — this time with no tsunami — in July 2007 that struck Kashiwazaki, a Tokyo Electric nuclear plant on Japan’s western coast.. The ground at Kashiwazaki shook as much as two and a half times the maximum intensity envisioned in the plant’s design, prompting upgrades at the plant. “They had years to prepare at that point, after Kashiwazaki, and I am seeing the same thing at Fukushima,” said Peter Yanev, an expert in seismic risk assessment based in California, who has studied Fukushima for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department.”

“There is no doubt that when Fukushima was designed in the 1960s , seismology and its intersection with the structural engineering of nuclear power plants was in its infancy, Hiroyuki Aoyama, an expert on the quake resistance at the University of Tokyo, told the New York Times. Engineers employed a lot of guesswork, adopting a standard that structures inside nuclear plants should have three times the quake resistance of general buildings. “There was no basis in deciding on three times,” said Mr. Aoyama, an emeritus professor of structural engineering at the University of Tokyo. “They were shooting from the hip...There was a vague target.”

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.

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."

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."

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.

Evolution of Anti-Tsunami Measures at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz wrote in the New York Times, “When Japanese engineers began designing their first nuclear power plants more than four decades ago, they turned to the past for clues on how to protect their investment in the energy of the future. Official archives, some centuries old, contained information on how tsunamis had flooded coastal villages, allowing engineers to surmise their height. So seawalls were erected higher than the highest tsunamis on record. At Fukushima Daiichi, Japan’s fourth oldest nuclear plant, officials at Tokyo Electric used a contemporary tsunami — a 10.5-foot-high wave caused by a 9.5-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960 — as a reference point.”[Source: Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz, New York Times, March 26, 2011]

“The 13-foot-high cliff on which the plant was built would serve as a natural seawall, according to Masaru Kobayashi, an expert on quake resistance at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan’s nuclear regulator. Eighteen-foot-high offshore breakwaters were built as part of the company’s anti-tsunami strategy, said Jun Oshima, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric. But regulators said the breakwaters — mainly intended to shelter boats — offered some resistance against typhoons, but not tsunamis, Mr. Kobayashi said.”

“We left it to the experts,” Masatoshi Toyoda, a retired TEPCO vice president who oversaw the construction of the plant, told the New York Times. “They researched old documents for information on how many tombstones had toppled over and such.”

Evolution of Anti- Earthquake and Tsunami Measures in Japan

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damaged pipe at TEPCO plant
“Over the decades, preparedness against tsunamis never became a priority for Japan’s power companies or nuclear regulators,” Onishi and Glanz wrote. “They were perhaps lulled, experts said, by the fact that no tsunami had struck a nuclear plant until two weeks ago. Even though tsunami simulations offered new ways to assess the risks of tsunamis, plant operators made few changes at their aging facilities, and nuclear regulators did not press them. Engineers took a similar approach with earthquakes. When it came to designing the Fukushima plant, official records dating from 1600 showed that the strongest earthquakes off the coast of present-day Fukushima Prefecture had registered between magnitude 7.0 and 8.0, Mr. Kobayashi said.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz, New York Times, March 26, 2011]

“Eventually, experts on government committees started pushing for tougher building codes, and by 1981, guidelines included references to earthquakes but not to tsunamis, according to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. That pressure grew exponentially after the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995, said Kenji Sumita, who was deputy chairman of the government’s Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan in the late 1990s.”

“Mr. Sumita said power companies, which were focused on completing the construction of a dozen reactors, resisted adopting tougher standards, and did not send representatives to meetings on the subject at the Nuclear Safety Commission. “Others sent people immediately,” Mr. Sumita said, referring to academics and construction industry experts. “But the power companies engaged in foot-dragging and didn’t come.”

“Meanwhile, the sciences of seismology and risk assessment advanced around the world. Although the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission has come under severe criticism for not taking the adoption of those new techniques far enough, the agency did use many of them in new, plant-by-plant reviews, said Greg S. Hardy, a structural engineer at Simpson Gumpertz & Heger who specializes in nuclear plant design and seismic risk.”

“For whatever reasons — whether cultural, historical or simply financial — Japanese engineers working on nuclear plants continued to predict what they believed were maximum earthquakes based on records. Those methods, however, did not take into account serious uncertainties like faults that had not been discovered or earthquakes that were gigantic but rare, said Mr. Hardy, who visited Kashiwazaki after the 2007 quake as part of a study sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute.

“The Japanese fell behind,” Mr. Hardy told the New York Times. “Once they made the proclamation that this was the maximum earthquake, they had a hard time re-evaluating that as new data came in.” The Japanese approach, referred to in the field as “deterministic” — as opposed to “probabilistic,” or taking unknowns into account — somehow stuck, said Noboru Nakao, a consultant who was a nuclear engineer at Hitachi for 40 years and was president of Japan’s training center for operators of boiling-water reactors. “Japanese safety rules generally are deterministic because probabilistic methods are too difficult,” Mr. Nakao said, adding that “the U.S. has a lot more risk assessment methods.”

“The science of tsunamis also advanced, with far better measurements of their size, vastly expanded statistics as more occurred, and computer calculations that help predict what kinds of tsunamis are produced by earthquakes of various sizes,” Onishi and Glanz wrote. “Two independent draft research papers by leading tsunami experts — Eric Geist of the United States Geological Survey and Costas Synolakis, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California — indicate that earthquakes of a magnitude down to about 7.5 can create tsunamis large enough to go over the 13-foot bluff protecting the Fukushima plant. Mr. Synolakis called Japan’s underestimation of the tsunami risk a “cascade of stupid errors that led to the disaster” and said that relevant data was virtually impossible to overlook by anyone in the field.”

“The first clear reference to tsunamis appeared in new standards for Japan’s nuclear plants issued in 2006. “The 2006 guidelines referred to tsunamis as an accompanying phenomenon of earthquakes, and urged the power companies to think about that,” said Mr. Aoyama, the structural engineering expert. The risk had received some attention in 2002, when a government advisory group, the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, published recommended tsunami guidelines for nuclear operators — but no concrete action was take then.

“Perhaps the saddest observation by scientists outside Japan is that, even through the narrow lens of recorded tsunamis, the potential for easily overtopping the anti-tsunami safeguards at Fukushima should have been recognized. In 1993 a magnitude 7.8 quake produced tsunamis with heights greater than 30 feet off Japan’s western coast that would have indicated the Fukushima nuclear power plant.”

Tepco Scandals and Cover-Ups

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TEPCO has been found guilty of falsifying repair records and has been found to be negligent on other safety issues. One worker was told to alter footage sent to regulators so they would not see radioactive steam leaking from the plant. He went public in 2000 and three Tepco executives s lost their jobs. Five TEPCO executives resigned in 2002 over suspected falsification of nuclear plant safety records and five reactors were forced to stop operations. In 2003, 17 nuclear power plants were shut down after TEPCO acknowledged it had covered up reports showing cracks in the structures of some reactors.

In 2006, the government ordered TEPCO to check past data after it reported finding falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data were used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005. [Source: AP]

In March 2011, Japan’s nuclear safety agency criticized TEPCO for falling to inspect 33 pieces of machinery parts crucial to Fukushima’s cooling system. Previously, TEPCO had skipped 117 inspections at the Kashiwazaki power plant, which was damaged in an earthquake in 2007, releasing radiation into the air and water (in that incident TEPCO initially said there were no radiation leaks). Cozy ties between TEPCO and Japanese bureaucrats, analysts say, partly explain why TEPCO has gotten away with being so negligent and irresponsible and also explain how was TEPCO was so easily able to extend the life of the Fukushima nuclear reactors long after they were supposed to be retired

Cables obtained and distributed by Wikileaks revealed that American diplomats had concerns about the safety of Japan’s nuclear plants. In one 2009 cable about the International Atomic Energy Agency, a diplomat criticized the work of Tomihiro Taniguchi, who was until last year the head of safety and security at the I.A.E.A. The leaked cable, which was published by The Guardian in December, said that Mr. Taniguchi, who spent three decades at Japan’s ministry of international trade and industry before joining the international agency, had been “a weak manager and advocate, particularly with respect to confronting Japan’s own safety practices,” during his time as the I.A.E.A. safety chief. [Source: Reuters]

Reuters added: “Separate cables quoted a Japanese lawmaker as telling visiting U.S. officials in October 2008 that power companies in Japan were hiding nuclear safety problems and being given an easy ride on commitments to renewable energy by the government.”

During the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami, TEPCO was accused of holding back data; failing to inform the government and the public of important developments in a timely fashion; and releasing radioactive water and gases without warning those affected by the releases. In the early days of the crisis CNN reported that Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan used foul language while cursing out TEPCO officials in telephone discussion with them.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Japanese government rejected offers of help from the United States to help cool the damaged reactors because the Japanese government and TEPCO felt confident they could handle situation without outside help. . According to the Wall Street Journal, “Crucial efforts to tame Japan’s crippled nuclear plant were delayed by concerns over damaging valuable power assets.” TEPCO was “reluctant to use seawater because it worried about hurting its long-term investment in the complex.” TEPCO was also criticized for delays its in response to cool the temporary storage pools for the spent nuclear rods.

Flaws at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Hidden by TEPCO

Many cases of cover-ups or altered data have been unveiled since 2002, including some at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. TEPCO believed that launching repairs to solve these problems would make their explanations about the safety of nuclear power to local residents ring false.

“In 2000, a whistle-blower at a separate company that was contracted to inspect the reactors told regulators about cracks in the stainless steel shrouds that cover reactor cores at Fukushima's Daiichi plant,” the New York Times reported. “But regulators simply told the company to look into the issue, allowing the reactors to keep operating.”[Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson; Kantaro Suzuki and Noriko Takata, New York Times, March 22, 2011]

“Nuclear regulators effectively sat on the information about the cracks in the shrouds, said Eisaku Sato, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture at the time and an opponent of nuclear power. He said the prefecture itself and the communities hosting the nuclear plants did not learn about the cracks until regulators publicized them in 2002, more than two years after the whistle-blower reported the cracks.”

“In 2003, regulators forced Tokyo Electric to suspend operations at its 10 reactors at two plants in Fukushima and 7 reactors in Niigata Prefecture after whistle-blowers gave information to Fukushima Prefecture showing that the company had falsified inspection records and hid flaws over 16 years to save on repair costs. In the most serious incident, Tokyo Electric hid the large cracks in the shrouds.”

Support for Nuclear Power in Japan See Nuclear Energy

Anger at TEPCO

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emergency response room
Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima wrote on the The Atlantic Online: “Jump in a nuclear reactor and die!” Those were the words directed at the chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) by one angry man at the tense stockholders meeting held today on June 28. It captured the sentiment of many people in Japan who are demanding the company take responsibility for the meltdown on March 11, at the nuclear power plant TEPCO managed and owns. The meeting inside did not run smoothly but meltdown was avoided. Outside the meeting, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Riot Squad held back the right- and left-wing demonstrators as well as a contingent of anti-nuclear protesters. Tsunehisa Katsumata, the chairman of the firm offered his apologies. He was re-elected as chairman the same day. He is a very good apologist. In 2003, after it had been widely reported that TEPCO had falsified safety data at dozens of reactors he also spoke for the company saying, “I wish to begin by expressing regret for the recent cases of misconduct at our company, which have eroded public confidence in the nuclear power industry.” [Source: Jake Adelstein and Stephanie Nakajima, The Atlantic, June 28, 2011]

TEPCO has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the nation of Japan: cronyism, collusion, gentrification, corruption, weak regulation, and entropy. Despite being in the spotlight for the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, TEPCO continues to engage in questionable labor practices, and has escaped bankruptcy in closed-door meetings with politicians, and through denying culpability has shifted part of the reparations burden onto taxpayers — deeds which testify to the extent to which TEPCO still has plenty of political power, if not as much nuclear power.

TEPCO, originally a public utility until it went private in 1951, has enjoyed over half a century of lax government regulation, a default monopoly status in the power industry (and the security that accompanies such a position), and finally an increasingly untouchable image, fortified by every scandal that goes virtually unpunished.Despite its many accidents, TEPCO has managed to shield itself over the years from rigorous investigation and censure. It has done so by wining and dining the Japanese media, spending the equivalent of $294 million in advertising, and hiring retired National Police Agency bureaucrats and former METI officials as “special advisors.” Using political connections, threats, and a complacent press, they have managed to stay in business.

Shoddy Work Done by Yakuza-Affiliated Workers at Fukushima

Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese engineer who worked at the Unit 1 site, told Adelstein he saw yakuza tattoos on many of the cleanup crew staff. When interviewed on May 23 he stated, “The plant had problems galore and the approach taken with them was piecemeal. Most of the critical work: construction work, inspection work, and welding were entrusted to sub-contracted employees with little technical background or knowledge of nuclear radiation. I can’t remember there ever being a disaster drill. The TEPCO employees never got their hands dirty.” [Source: Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, The Atlantic, July 2, 2011]

Katsunobu Onda, author of “TEPCO: The Dark Empire”, Onda said: “I’ve spent decades researching TEPCO and its nuclear power plants and what I’ve found, and what government reports confirm is that the nuclear reactors are only as strong as their weakest links, and those links are the pipes.”

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During his research, Onda spoke with several engineers who worked at the TEPCO plants. One told him that often piping would not match up the way it should according to the blueprints. In that case, the only solution was to use heavy machinery to pull the pipes close enough together to weld them shut. Inspection of piping was often cursory and the backs of the pipes, which were hard to reach, were often ignored. Since the inspections themselves were generally cursory and done by visual checks, it was easy to ignore them. Repair jobs were rushed; no one wanted to be exposed to nuclear radiation longer than necessary. Onda adds, “When I first visited the Fukushima power plant it was a web of pipes. Pipes on the wall, on the ceiling, on the ground. You’d have to walk over them, duck under them’sometimes you’d bump your head on them. It was like a maze of pipes inside.”

Shoddy Work Related to the Fukushima Meltdown

Jake Adelstein and David McNeill wrote on The Atlantic Online: Onda believes it’s not very difficult to explain what happened at Unit 1 and perhaps the other reactors as well. “The pipes, which regulate the heat of the reactor and carry coolant, are the veins and arteries of a nuclear power plant; the core is the heart. If the pipes burst, vital components don’t reach the heart and thus you have a heart attack, in nuclear terms: meltdown. In simpler terms, you can’t cool a reactor core if the pipes carrying the coolant and regulating the heat rupture — it doesn’t get to the core.” [Source: Jake Adelstein and David McNeill, The Atlantic, July 2, 2011]

Tooru Hasuike, a TEPCO employee from 1977 until 2009 and former general safety manager of the Fukushima plant, also notes: “The emergency plans for a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant had no mention of using sea-water to cool the core. To pump seawater into the core is to destroy the reactor. The only reason you’d do that is no other water or coolant was available.”

Problems with the fractured, deteriorating, poorly repaired pipes and the cooling system had been pointed out for years. In 2002, whistle-blower allegations that TEPCO had deliberately falsified safety records came to light and the company was forced to shut down all of its reactors and inspect them, including the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Kei Sugaoka, a GE on-site inspector first notified Japan’s nuclear watch dog, Nuclear Industrial Safey Agency (NISA) in June of 2000. Not only did the government of Japan take more than two years to address the problem and collude on covering it up, they gave the name of the whistleblower to TEPCO.

In September of 2002, TEPCO admitted to covering up data concerning cracks in critical circulation pipes in addition to previously revealed falsifications. In their analysis of the cover-up, The Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center writes: “The records that were covered up had to do with cracks in parts of the reactor known as recirculation pipes. These pipes are there to siphon off heat from the reactor. If these pipes were to fracture, it would result in a serious accident in which coolant leaks out. From the perspective of safety, these are highly important pieces of equipment. Cracks were found in the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, reactor one, reactor two, reactor three, reactor four, reactor five.” The cracks in the pipes were not due to earthquake damage; they came from the simple wear and tear of long-term usage.

On March 2, nine days before the meltdown, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) gave TEPCO a warning on its failure to inspect critical pieces of equipment at the plant, which included the recirculation pumps. TEPCO was ordered to make the inspections, perform repairs if needed and give a report to the NISA on June 2. The report is not confirmed to have been filed as of this time.

The problems were not only with the piping. Gas tanks at the site also exploded after the earthquake. The outside of the reactor building suffered structural damage. There was some chaos. There was no one really qualified to assess the radioactive leakage because, as the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency admits, after the accident all the on-site inspectors fled the site. And the quake and tsunami broke most of the monitoring equipment so there was little information available on radiation afterwards.

Yakuza-Hired Workers at Fukushima

According to Suzuki three of the heroic “Fukushima Fifty” were yakuza members. Jake Adelstein wrote in The Telegraph: For his book, “The Yakuza and the Nuclear Industry”, Suzuki went undercover at Fukushima to find first-hand evidence of the long-rumoured ties between the nuclear industry and the yakuza. First he documents how remarkably easy it was to become a nuclear worker at Fukushima after the meltdown. After signing up with a legitimate company providing labour, he entered the plant armed only with a wristwatch with a hidden camera. Working there over several months, he quickly found yakuza-supplied labour, and many former yakuza working on site themselves. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Telegraph, February 21, 2012]

The initial work, directly after a series of hydrogen explosions in March, was extremely dangerous. Radiation was reaching levels so high that the Japanese government raised the safety exposure levels and even ordered scientists to stop monitoring radiation levels in some areas of the plants. TEPCO sent out word to their contractors to gather as many people as possible and to offer substantial wages. Yakuza recruited from all over Japan; the initial workers were paid 50,000 yen (£407) per day, but one dispatch company offered 200,000 yen (£1,627) per day.

Even then, recruits were hard to find. Officials in Fukushima reportedly told local businesses, “Bring us the living dead. People no one will miss.” The labour crunch was eased somewhat when the Japanese government and TEPCO raised the “safe” radiation exposure levels at the plant from pre-earthquake levels of 130-180cpm (radiation exposure per minute) to 100,000cpm.

The work would be further subcontracted to the point where labourers were being sent from sixth-tier firms. A representative from one company told Suzuki of an agreement made with a TEPCO subcontractor right after the accident: “Normally, to even enter the grounds of a nuclear power plant a nuclear radiation personal data management pocketbook is required. We were told that wasn’t necessary. We didn’t even have time to give the workers physical examinations before they were sent to the plant.”

One mid-level executive in the Sumiyoshi-kai yakuza group even defends the role of his members in the Fukushima disaster. “The accident isn’t our fault,” he said. “It’s TEPCO’s fault. We’ve always been a necessary evil in the work process. In fact, if some of our men hadn’t stayed to fight the meltdown, the situation would have been much worse. TEPCO employees and the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency inspectors mostly fled; we stood our ground.” [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, December 30, 2011]

Adelstein wrote: “While the symbiotic relationship between TEPCO and the yakuza has existed for decades, the relationship is officially “unacceptable.” The controversy became so great after the accident that TEPCO pledged on July 19 to try to keep yakuza members from participating in the reconstruction of the power plant and related projects. They have been working with the Japanese National Police Agency (JNPA) to accomplish this but sources inside that agency are dubious as to whether there have been any real results. TEPCO officials met with the National Police Agency and 23 subcontractors in July and created a conference group on organized crimes issues according to government sources and they have met several times since. TEPCO explained at the time, “we want to people to widely know our exclusionary stance towards organized crime.”

Work Done by Yakuza-Hired Workers at Fukushima

Jake Adelstein wrote in The Telegraph: When Suzuki was working in the plant in August, he had to wear a full-body radiation protective suit and a gas mask that covered his entire face. The hot summer temperatures and the lack of breathability in the suits ensured that almost every day a worker would keel over with heat exhaustion and be carried out; they would invariably return to work the next day. Going to the bathroom was virtually impossible, so workers were simply told to “hold it”. According to Suzuki, the temperature monitors in the plant weren’t even working, and were ignored. Removing the mask during work was against the rules; no matter how thirsty workers became, they could not drink water. After an hour fixing pipes and doing other work, Suzuki says his body felt like it was enveloped in flames. Workers were not checked to see if they were coping, they were expected to report it to their supervisors. However, while TEPCO officials on the ground told the workers not to risk injury, it seemed that anyone complaining of the working conditions or fatigue would be fired. Few took their allotted rest breaks. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Telegraph, February 21, 2012]

Those who reported feeling unwell were treated by TEPCO doctors, nearly always with what Suzuki says was essentially cold medicine.The risk of radiation exposure was 100 per cent. The masks, if their filters were cleaned regularly, which they were not, could only remove 60 per cent of the radioactive particles in the air. Anonymous workers claimed that the filters themselves were ill-fitting; if they accidentally bumped their masks, radiation could easily get in. The workers’ dosimeter badges, meanwhile, used to measure an individual’s exposure to radiation, could be easily manipulated to give false readings. According to Suzuki, tricks like pinning a badge on backwards, or putting it in your sock, were commonplace. Regular workers were given dosimeters which would sound an alarm when radiation exceeded safe levels, but it made such a racket that, says Suzuki, “people just turned them off or over and kept working.”

A recent report in Japan’s Mainichi newspaper alleged that workers from southern Japan were brought to the plant in July on false pretences and told to get to work. Many had to enter dangerous radioactive buildings. One man was reportedly tasked with carrying 20kg kilogram sheets of lead from the bottom floor of a damaged reactor up to the sixth floor, where his Geiger counters went into the danger zone. One worker said, “When I tried to quit, the people employing me mentioned the name of a local yakuza group. I got the hint. If TEPCO didn’t know what was going on, I believe they should have.” Former TEPCO executives, workers, police officials, as well as investigative journalist, Katsunobu Onda, author of TEPCO: The Dark Empire, all agree: TEPCO have always known they were working with the yakuza; they just didn’t care. However, the articles Suzuki wrote before his book was published, and my own work, helped create enough public outcry to force TEPCO into action. On July 19, four months after the meltdowns, they announced that they would be cutting ties with organised crime.

“They asked the companies that have been working with them for years to send them papers showing they’d cut organised crime ties,” Suzuki says. “They followed up by taking a survey.” TEPCO has not answered my own questions on their anti-organised crime initiative as of this date; they’ve previously called Suzuki’s claims “groundless”.

How Yakuza Uses Subcontractors to Hire People to Work at Fukushima

Adelstein wrote on The Atlantic Online: The Fukushima plant is located in the turf of the Sumiyoshi-kai, which is the second largest yakuza group in Japan with roughly 12,000 members. According to TEPCO and police sources, since the reconstruction project has picked up speed, the number of workers has dramatically increased to several thousand. The JNPA has directed TEPCO from as early as June, to keep the yakuza out — although many of the subcontractors of the subcontractors are known yakuza front companies. [Source: Jake Adelstein, The Atlantic, December 30, 2011]

Even before the meltdown, it was very common for TEPCO to use temporary staffing firms that that would ultimately outsource work to organized crime front companies such as M-Kogyo in Fukuoka Prefecture and Yokohama which is backed by the Kudo-kai. Organized crime groups from Kyushu are bringing workers as well. Many of the workers are homeless people, debtors to yakuza loan sharks, or former yakuza who have been expelled from their group.

In fact, in May, TEPCO’s Public Relations Department, when asked by this reporter, if TEPCO’s contracts with subcontractors have what are now standard “organized crime exclusionary clauses,” a spokesperson replied, “We don’t have them standardized into our contracts. We don’t check or demand that our subcontractors have them in their contracts. We are considering doing so in the future.”

TEPCO has not responded to recent requests for clarification on any changes. or whether they have fully implemented the Japanese government issued guidelines for corporations who wish to avoid doing business with organized crime. TEPCO also refused to name the companies they use for outsourcing labor, background security checks, and general security at the nuclear power plants, “because to do so would be in non-compliance with personal privacy information protection laws.”

TEPCO will probably not be held responsible for the second or third tier firms to which the work is further subcontracted. A senior National Police Agency officer said, “TEPCO has a history of doing business with the yakuza that is far deeper than just using their labor.” The same source noted that a TEPCO employee was arrested for insurance fraud along with a Sumiyoshi-kai member in May of this year but there was no evidence that TEPCO itself or any other TEPCO employees were involved in the crime. It only indicated that at least one TEPCO employee had organized crime connections.

Police and underworld sources also allege that a Matsuba-kai related front company is handling waste disposal at TEPCO plants and that TEPCO executives as recently as this summer were going on golfing jaunts with Matsuba-kai members. The Matsuba-kai is one of the ten largest yakuza groups in Japan with a strong presence in Tokyo but not a major powerhouse.

The Inagawa-kai, the third largest organized crime group in Japan, with offices across from the Tokyo Ritz Carlton has also been involved in the reconstruction efforts. Most of the yakuza involvement is in procuring workers to do the jobs of laying pipes and cleaning up debris while being exposed to high levels of radiation. The yakuza bring the laborers there but do not labor there. However, heavy constructions and other work is being done by yakuza front companies or firms with strong yakuza ties.

Image Sources: TEPCO, Greenpeace

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

Last updated August 2020

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