A panel of experts looking into the Fukushima nuclear crisis last year described the disaster as largely manmade and the result of “collusion” between government, regulator and plant operator. The release of the report should douse cold water on the decision of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to end a two-month shutdown of Japan’s nuclear power plants and reactivate them one by one starting this month. The reactivation is taking place amid fierce public outcry that the government may be paying lip service to safety requirements in the rush to reopen the plants and get industries going. As the expert report suggests, the same blasé attitude appears to have caused the 2011 crisis in the first place.
The report somehow squares with the admission of a Japanese Cabinet minister last month that Japan’s nuclear watchdog and the science and technology ministry failed to disclose US data about the spread of radiation spewing from a crippled nuclear plant last year, so that some evacuees fled in the same direction as the radioactive emissions. Like the panel report, the remarks of Industry Minister Yukio Edano indicated collusion between regulators and the operators of the nuclear power plant.
The panel said it could not rule out that the damage on the Fukushima Daiichi plant was caused mainly by the big earthquake on March 11, and not just by the tsunami that ensued after the temblor. The finding could have serious implications as Japan seeks to reactivate idled reactors. Earlier, all of Japan’s 50 functional reactors had been taken offline one by one for maintenance and safety checks. The last reactor was shut down last May amid widespread public concern over the safety of nuclear plants in the event of another large earthquake and tsunami of the sort that struck Fukushima, which resulted in a meltdown that contaminated a large part of northern Japan with radiation, forcing about 150,000 people from their homes, many of whom can never return.
The panel pointed to problems in the response of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who resigned last year after criticism of his handling of the crisis. “The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties,” the panel said.
Moreover, regulators reportedly did not adopt global safety standards. “Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety,” the panel said. “As a result of inadequate oversight, the SA (severe accident) countermeasures implemented in Japan were practically ineffective compared to the countermeasures in place abroad, and actions were significantly delayed as a result.”
The conclusions of the report are serious and even damning. The finding that seismic damage may well have played a role in the March 11 meltdown should affect not only the restart of reactors that have been temporarily decommissioned, mostly for maintenance and safety checks, but also the future of nuclear power in Japan. Just as serious is the discovery that Tepco, abetted by law regulators, might have cut corners and costs, thus jettisoning considerations of safety.
Although several other investigations are being carried out, the report should at least compel the Noda government to rethink its decision to reactivate the power plants. Over the long term, it should review Japan’s nuclear future. While Tepco’s own internal investigation issued last month denied responsibility for the disaster, saying the big “unforeseen” tsunami was to blame, the denial was at least self-serving. In any case, admitting that the earthquake caused much of the damage should at least oblige Tepco and the Japanese government to think hard whether nuclear power is really the way to go for a resource-scarce but quake-prone country. Even Tepco admitted that in hindsight, it was insufficiently prepared for the twin disasters, whether by omission or commission it didn’t say. But the admission should at least make everyone think twice whether a country, even presumably as safety-obsessed and disaster-ready as Japan, could ever really be prepared. What the findings really show is that March 11 wasn’t only a nuclear meltdown; it was also a safety meltdown.
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