Independent Commission on Nuclear Accident: Earthquake, TEPCO negligence, Myth of Safety Caused Meltdown

On March 1st, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, established in September 2011 by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, lead by Koichi Kitazawa, former president of Japan Science and Technology Agency, held a press conference on their recently issued report. The commission is a civilian project staffed by nuclear experts, investigative journalists, and experts in risk management.

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee press conference. Mr. Kitazawa (center) Mr. Funabashi (far left)

We have summarized the press conference and the report for our readers. During the press conference, the committee stated that there was solid evidence to suggest that the earthquake caused enough damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant to create the meltdown and that the tsunami was a secondary factor. This conclusion flies in the face of the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) claims that an unprecedented tidal wave was responsible for the disaster rather than the earthquake.

The committee found that there was not only a problem in the reactors of Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, but that the pools that store the spent fuel “were one of the biggest source of possible radioactive leakage.” The other main problem during the crisis management was the lack of information sharing and coordination inside the government offices, and also the failure of international communication with regard to the dumping of contaminated seawater into the ocean. The Japanese tatewari hierarchal systems of the Japanese government offices had been disclosed to the whole world.

“National Psychological Spiral”

This report did not only cover the direct or indirect causes of the accident, but also the socio-historical part of the cause.

The report pointed out that the situation in Japan with regard to nuclear power is very “poorly prepared to accidents.” A “psychological spiral” may have lead Japan into having arrogant self-confidence in nuclear energy. “All the people who worked or still work in the nuclear industry” felt that “there was something wrong in what they were doing”, but failed to report it.

As a scientist, Mr. Koichi Kitazawa, the chairman of the panel and Former President of Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), feels that the nuclear power reactors in Japan are “too crowded” on the same site. Because of this “crowded distribution of radioactivity sources”, the accident developed in the way that “each of the radioactive sources interacted with each other” and therefore amplified the scale of the accident.

The report also pointed out that, the people who knew about the meltdown knew that “the most dangerous part of the plant was not just the reactors, but also the pools where the spent fuel is stored”. “The spent fuel pools were one of the biggest source of possible radioactive leak”, but this time “fortunately” the leak from these pools could be avoided in time. However, this “luck” cannot be guaranteed in the future.

TEPCO Requested Retreat from the Accident Site

During the most critical times of the accident, between March 14th and 16th, TEPCO had requested former PM Naoto Kan’s office to pull out the group of workers operating on the Fukushima Daiichi power station accident site. The president of TEPCO called the people who were closely working with the PM asking them to convince the PM to let them evacuate their employees. But PM Naoto Kan and his advisors did not permit TEPCO to retreat. In total, about 600 people retreated from the accident site, but the so-called Fukushima Fifty were left behind to work inside the nuclear power station to avoid the accident to go out of control.

According to the investigation of this panel commission, perhaps the greatest achievements of Mister Kan could be that he “was able to prevent TEPCO to retreat entirely from the Daiichi site.” In other words, while Prime Minister Naoto Kan was a hot-headed jerk, his decisiveness and ability to threaten and intimidate TEPCO into not abandoning ship,  like a bunch of rats, was decisive in preventing an even greater nuclear disaster.

However, the excessive involvement of the PM’s office to the crisis management was “more than necessary” and turned out to be “not really effective.” The reason for this involvement was because “the presence of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of Japan and the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan was so dilute and insufficient”. The PM’s office was not able to gather enough information from these organizations and “gradually became suspicious about the efficiency” of the bureaucrats and those involved in the accident management. This has led the PM to go directly to the accident site.

The report concludes that the reason why the accident was on an epic scale was because of the “lack of a sense of responsibility and professional negligence on safety issues of TEPCO and of the government.”

The world is supposed to have accumulated much improvement in terms of security issues in nuclear power plants after the accidents of Three Miles Island and Chernobyl. However Japan has not been able to use the world’s experience in nuclear disaster. Ambassador Tetsuya Endo, member of the committee and former chairman of the Board of Governors said that the main problem in Japan is the lack of the information sharing during the crisis management and the “arrogant” self confidence of the Japanese nuclear energy industry accumulated since the 1960’s which led Japan “not to pay enough attention from the recommendations coming from abroad, including from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).”

“Negligence in the last 20 years has led Japan to become a place not safe enough for using nuclear energy.”

 The reasons why Japan did not accept the recommendation from the other countries about the safety issue, according to the investigation, is believed to be the “self trapped situation” of the people related to regulation from which a nuclear power generation trapped in the so-called “miss in absolute safety.” This is why the safety issue did not reach a higher level in Japan.

In other words, the words “improvement in safety issues” has even become almost “taboo” in the manufacturing companies of nuclear power plant and for electric power companies. In their logic, believing that nuclear energy is “100% safe”, there was no room for “improvement.”

Preparedness to a Nuclear Accident for Nuclear Power Generation

As for the people related to the regulatory side or the promotion of nuclear energy, according to the interviews conducted by the investigation crew, have expressed that they have felt that there was “some problems,” but felt that if each of them started to speak out something different from what they were promoting, the nuclear power would not get support from the general public.

According to Mr. Kitazawa, each one of whom they have questioned said they “regretted what they have been doing” without sufficient knowledge, which raises the legal part of the issue of responsibility. The belief in the absolute safety of nuclear energy turned out not to be true, but those who were promoting it believed that this energy was 100% safe. And so these people ended up believing that improvement was “not necessary and unreasonable,” according to the findings of the report.

Information Mismanagement

The report found that the management of information was a failure as well. “Japan was not ready at all to manage a nuclear crisis starting from the accident site to the PM’s office.” How to gather and transmit information in the crisis management turned out the support from the people, and unfortunately during the management of the accident the Japanese government failed to grasp support or reliability of the people on the government.

The Power of Twitter and Bloggers

Mr. Funabashi, another member of the committee, and former reporter at Asahi Newspaper, said that indeed, the Japanese media should have challenged the Japanese government officials more critically. The System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) designed to provide precautionary measure to those who are supposed to evacuate was not made public, and the first to be reporting on the issue were the foreign media, which gradually the people at the PM’s office be informed on the issue. For example, active tweetters and bloggers questioning the SPEEDI and its effectiveness, such as Professor Hayano Ryugo at Tokyo University, started to mention SPEEDI on internet around March 15th. This professor had many followers and one of the first to follow him was a member of the PM’s office. Yet the official explanation given about this story was that “given the uncertainty of the source’s terms the system cannot be utilized,” and it was recommended to the politicians that the system should not be activated. Even though they had invested much money on this system in the past years, they decided not to use it. With so many stories like this one, the Japanese media should have investigated more. And in the most critical moment of the history of the accident, Mr. Funabashi believes that the Japanese media did not serve the general public and that the long established Japanese “Press Club System” is hurting Japanese journalism “to do a rightful and useful job.” For example, the reporters who were already aware of the SPEEDI on March 14th and 16th, have asked many questions to the ministers and the deputy ministers, but no serious report came out on these days in the major Japanese media. “So the press club system did not help communication at all, in this case.”

Although the PM’s office and those who worked on the accident site have worked their best to improve the situation, the report concludes that “most of the effort was not efficient.” Mr. Koichi Kitazawa insists on the fact that “luckily”, the situation did not get worse than what happened, “not too much radioactivity was leaked,” but this “luck” cannot be guaranteed in the future.

The Spectre of Nuclear Terrorism

Ambassador Endo also spoke of a great risk of terrorist attacks taken by TEPCO over the years. According to him, “terrorists could have achieved their intention, as TEPCO hired its employees without keeping track of where they come from and their competence in working in the sector.”

Some of the so-called Fukushima Fifty are still unknown, because TEPCO failed to trace who they are, he noted. (Editor’s note: Suzuki Tomohiko, author of Yakuza and The Nuclear Industry, has asserted that some of them were actually local gangsters. Considering TEPCO’s long history of cozy relations and/or tacit approval of organized crime related firms, this is probably not surprising.)

Did the meltdown occur before or after the Tsunami hit?”

The chairman of the committee said that “there had already been a fatal accident, and a failure of the system had taken place before the tsunami arrived.” The report contains an interview with a person who stayed inside the nuclear power plant. The person interviewed talks about what he and his colleagues saw before the tsunami hit. “According to this person, they saw some steam coming out from inside the reactor and they had special word for the vapors,  namajoki (生蒸気) in Japanese, which is raw steam. They suspected at the time that it was the steam coming from some pipeline between the reactor and the turbines.”

However, in order to tell if there was an accident occurring before the tsunami hit, the workers would have had to go inside the reactor in order to find out what was really happening in there. “At that moment, the radiation level was too high and they could not check what is really happening inside the reactor.” Therefore, the committee “could not finalize the conclusion.”

Jake Adelstein also contributed to this article. 

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7 thoughts on “Independent Commission on Nuclear Accident: Earthquake, TEPCO negligence, Myth of Safety Caused Meltdown”

  1. I’m afraid I’ve never understood why the meltdown preceding the tsunami is such an issue. If a meltdown occurred and personnel, equipment and infrastructure were available to control the meltdown, no release would have occurred, and no member of the general public would have suffered radiation exposure. Those resources are exactly what the tsunami removed from the equation.
    I’ve seen Jake comment elsewhere (the linked Atlantic article) that the plant was designed to withstand and even larger quake, but that’s not true (see: http://woody.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/A-PRA-Practioner-looks-at-the-Great-East-Japan-Earthquake-and-Tsunami.pdf page 11, etc).

    1. It has to do with criminal negligence. If the plant, which had faulty piping, was severely decayed, a history of cover-ups and falsification of safety data, and had been cited for inspection problems by the NISA a week before the earthquake–if it was the earthquake that fatally damaged the plant–then TEPCO’s responsibility is great. It also raises questions about every nuclear power plant in Japan. If one can’t withstand an earthquake can other power plants as old and equally in bad shape stand one?
      The report suggests as have other scientists, that the earthquake set in motion a meltdown that was not containable because the critical piping had ruptured in so many places that there was no coolant available. The tsunami knocked out the power but the plant was supposed to have a fail-safe hydraulic system that worked WITHOUT electric power. That system failed as well, although it partially kicked in before the tidal wave but appears to have ran out of coolant, probably because of leaks.
      Another critical source of data, which would have sent radiation readings back to Tokyo, failed to work because TEPCO had disconnected it months before the accident to do some minor repairs and simply forgot to reconnect it. Thus, critical data which could have helped evaluate the situation was not available either.
      In short, if the earthquake caused even one meltdown, the safety of all nuclear power plants in Japan is in question and it suggests TEPCO failed to carry out the repairs and maintenance that the Japanese government had ordered it to do, probably to save money.
      The accident at Fukushima wasn’t a natural disaster–it was a man-made disaster and the sequence of events will be called into play when and if criminal charges are filed against the head of TEPCO and other executives. It would not be the first time in Japan that nuclear plant management, down to the heads of the power company itself, were prosecuted for criminal negligence resulting in death and injury.
      I hope that helps.

  2. The Fukushima Daichii plant was built to seismic standards as best understood in 1971. Daini in 1982
    However, it was well understood by the 1990s that these standards were not good enough.
    TEPCO had 20 years to make improvements but didn’t.
    As Jake says, that is criminal negligence.

    The ‘unexpected’ myth 想定外 has its origins in a March 13th press conference appearance by TEPCO head, Shimizu (his first one). The motivation was simple.

    According to Art, 3 of the Nuclear Power Compensation Law 原子力損害賠償法 the power companies do not have to pay compensation if they can demonstrate that damage was caused by a ‘massive natural disaster’ 巨大な天災地変 (or social unrest).

    In addition, in 2008 TEPCO reported to the government that a wave over 10 meters was possible. This was in response to a call by the government in 2006 to re-evaluate safety.

    They knew. They did nothing.

    1. The ‘unexpected’ myth 想定外 has its origins in a March 13th press conference appearance by TEPCO head, Shimizu (his first one). The motivation was simple.

      According to Art, 3 of the Nuclear Power Compensation Law 原子力損害賠償法 the power companies do not have to pay compensation if they can demonstrate that damage was caused by a ‘massive natural disaster’ 巨大な天災地変 (or social unrest).

      In addition, in 2008 TEPCO reported to the government that a wave over 10 meters was possible. This was in response to a call by the government in 2006 to re-evaluate safety.

      They knew. They did nothing.
      Wow. In one paragraphs you’ve explained so much. Thank you for shedding more light on this.

  3. if you are still interested, I have found the law (but maybe you have!).

    Check Part II, Chapter 1, Section 3 (third page down)

    “Where nuclear damage is caused as a result of reactor operation etc. during such operation, the nuclear
    operator who is engaged in the reactor operation etc. on this occasion shall be liable for the damage,
    except in the case where the damage is caused by a grave natural disaster of an exceptional character
    or by an insurrection.”

    http://www.oecd-nea.org/law/legislation/japan-docs/Japan-Nuclear-Damage-Compensation-Act.pdf

  4. You are so interesting! I do not think I’ve truly read through anything like that before. So wonderful to discover someone with original thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that is required on the internet, someone with a little originality!Sky Habitat

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