Fukushima crisis was preventable, expert panel finds

Fri, Jul 6, 2012, 01:00

TOKYO – Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis was a preventable disaster resulting from “collusion” among the government, regulators and the plant operator, an expert panel said yesterday, wrapping up an inquiry into the worst nuclear accident in 25 years.

Damage from the huge March 11th, 2011, earthquake, and not just the ensuing tsunami, could not be ruled out as a cause of the accident, the panel added, a finding that could have serious implications as Japan seeks to bring idled reactors back on line. The panel also criticised the response of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co, regulators and then prime minister Naoto Kan, who quit last year after criticism of his handling of a natural disaster that developed into a man-made 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 in an English summary of a 641-page Japanese report.

Regulators, it said, had been reluctant to adopt global safety standards that could have helped prevent the disaster, in which reactors melted down, spewing radiation and forcing 150,000 people from their homes.

“Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organisation that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety,” it said.

Its finding that seismic damage might well have played a role could affect the restart of reactors that were taken offline, mostly for maintenance and safety checks, in the months since Fukushima.

“We have proved that it cannot be said that there would have been no crisis without the tsunami,” Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and panel member, said in the report. Experts have said that an active fault may lie under Kansai Electric Power Co’s Ohi plant in western Japan, whose No 3 unit began supplying electricity to the grid early yesterday.

Ohi’s No 4 unit will come on line later this month after the government approved the restarts to avoid a power shortage. “This means that all of Japan’s reactors are vulnerable and require retro-fitting ... ” said Jeffrey Kingston, Asia studies director at Temple University in Tokyo.

The report by the experts – one of three panels looking into the Fukushima disaster – follows a six-month investigation involving more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with over 1,100 people.

Critics have long argued that close ties between utilities, nuclear regulators and lawmakers were key factors. In an effort to repair tattered public trust, the government will in a few months set up a more independent nuclear watchdog to draft new safety rules.

The report pointed to numerous missed opportunities to prevent the disaster, citing lobbying by the nuclear power companies as well as a “safety myth” mindset that permeated the industry and the regulatory regime.

Resource-poor Japan has for decades promoted nuclear power as safe, cheap and clean. Atomic energy supplied nearly 30 per cent of electricity needs before the disaster.

Tepco came under heavy criticism in the report, partly for putting cost-cutting steps ahead of safety as nuclear power became less profitable.– (Reuters)