A top-level collusion that led to nuclear disaster

A top-level collusion that led to nuclear disaster

Early warnings were hushed up in a culture of collusion between regulators and experts

A year after a huge earthquake and tsunami caused nearly catastrophic meltdowns at a nuclear plant, Japan is still grappling with a crucial question: Was the accident simply the result of an unforeseeable natural disaster or something that could have been prevented?

Japan’s nuclear regulators and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco, have said that the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 45-foot tsunami on March 11 that knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were far larger than anything that scientists had predicted. That conclusion has allowed the company to argue that it is not responsible for the triple meltdown, which forced the evacuation of about 90,000 people.

But some insiders from Japan’s tightly knit nuclear industry have stepped forward to say that Tepco and regulators had for years ignored warnings of the possibility of a larger-than-expected tsunami in northeastern Japan, and thus failed to take adequate countermeasures, such as raising wave walls or placing backup generators on higher ground.

They attributed this to a culture of collusion in which powerful regulators and compliant academic experts looked the other way while the industry put a higher priority on promoting nuclear energy than protecting public safety. They call the Fukushima accident a wake-up call to Japan to break the cozy ties between government and industry that are a legacy of the nation’s rush to develop after World War II.

“March 11 exposed the true nature of Japan’s postwar system, that it is led by bureaucrats who stand on the side of industry, not the people,” said Shigeaki Koga, a former director of industrial policy at the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, or METI, which both promotes and regulates the nuclear industry.

One of those whose warnings were ignored was Kunihiko Shimazaki, a retired professor of seismology at the University of Tokyo. Eight years ago, as a member of an influential cabinet office committee on offshore earthquakes in northeastern Japan, Shimazaki warned that Fukushima’s coast was vulnerable to tsunamis more than twice as tall as the forecasts of up to 17 feet put forth by regulators and Teopco.

Minutes of the meeting on Feb 19, 2004, show that the government bureaucrats running the committee moved quickly to exclude his views from debate as too speculative and ‘pending further research.’ None of the other 13 academics on the committee objected.

Shimazaki’s warnings were not even mentioned in the committee’s final report two years later. He said the committee did not want to force Tepco to make expensive upgrades at the plant. ‘They completely ignored me in order to save Tepco money,’ said Shimazaki, 65.

Shimazaki and others say the fault lay not in outright corruption, but rather complicity among like-minded insiders who prospered for decades by scratching one another’s backs. They describe a structure in which elite career bureaucrats controlled rubber-stamp academic policy-making committees, while at the same time leaving it to industry to essentially regulate itself.

Restoring trust

In one of the most widely watched reforms to come out of the Fukushima accident, the government is moving to restore trust in regulatory oversight by separating Japan’s main nuclear regulatory agency from METI. In a bill now in Parliament, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wants to put the nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, known as NISA, into the more safety-minded environmental ministry as early as next month.

However, many here say targeting a single ministry does not go far enough in ending the murky links between government and industry. Critics like Koga, the former METI official, point to other, broader problems, such as the fact that Japan’s regulators are not nuclear specialists, but are reliant for expertise on the very companies they are charged with monitoring.

At the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organisation, for example, a government agency that carries out safety inspections on behalf of NISA, most of the inspectors are former employees of the power companies and reactor manufacturers who often wink at safety lapses to protect their former employers, says Setsuo Fujiwara, a former inspector.

Fujiwara, who used to design reactors, said he clashed with supervisors over an audit he conducted in March 2009 at the Tomari nuclear plant on the northern island of Hokkaido. Fujiwara said he refused to approve a routine test by the plant’s operator, Hokkaido Electric Power, saying the test was flawed.

A week later, he said he was summoned by his boss, who ordered him to “correct” his written report to indicate that the test had been done properly. After Fujiwara refused, his employment contract was not renewed.

“They told me my job was just to approve reactors, not to raise doubts about them,” said Fujiwara, 62, who is now suing the safety organisation to get rehired. In a written response to questions from The New York Times, the agency said it could not comment while the court case was under way.

Tepco and its supporters say it is easy in hindsight to second-guess the company. They said no one could have been fully prepared for the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the largest in Japan’s recorded history, and giant tsunami that knocked out cooling systems at three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors. But many experts and industry insiders disagree, saying the plant had ample warning, including from its own engineers.

In 2008, Tepco engineers made three separate sets of calculations that showed that Fukushima Daiichi could be hit by tsunamis as high as 50 feet, according to the company. A Tepco spokesman, Takeo Iwamoto, said Tepco did not tell regulators at NISA for almost a year, and then did not reveal the most alarming calculation, of a 50-foot wave, until March 7 of last year – four days before the tsunami actually struck.

Asked why the company did not move more quickly to strengthen defenses at the plant, he said that the calculations were considered “provisional estimates” based on academic theories that were not then widely accepted. Officials at NISA said regulators followed their standard procedure of leaving it to Tepco to conduct so-called back checks of tsunami defenses.

Critics say the same hands-off approach prevailed at the committees of outside experts that were supposed to serve as a check on regulators. Many former committee members, as well as current and former METI officials, say that bureaucrats not only tightly choreographed the topics for discussion by the committees, but also wrote the final reports on the committees’ findings.

This was the case in a crucial revision of seismic guidelines for nuclear plants that was completed in 2006 by the Nuclear Safety Commission, said Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a retired seismologist at Kobe University who served on a committee to create the new guidelines for tsunami preparedness.

Ishibashi, who has long warned of the dangers posed by earthquakes to nuclear plants, said he often felt he was the token critic on the 22-member committee. He ended up quitting in anger during the last meeting in August 2006, after seeing a draft of the revised guidelines that, he said, contained none of his warnings. “The bureaucrats held the real power because they wrote the report,” said Ishibashi, 67. “Fukushima Daiichi is a disaster that could have been avoided.”

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