As Japan gets ready to restart nuclear reactors across the country, perhaps it’s time to take a look back at past nuclear mishaps to see if anything has been learned.
The Mihama Incident which occurred at Kansai Electric Power Company’s Mihama Nuclear Power Plant on August 9th 2004, was at the time, the worst accident at a nuclear reactor in Japan’s history. Four workers died of burns and eight were seriously injured by the hot steam that burst into the turbine room at the Number 3 reactor. Inspectors later discovered that the walls of the piping inside the turbine, originally 10mm thick, had been worn away by the pressure and allowed the steam to escape.
They discovered that the damaged piping had not once been replaced in the 28 years the reactor had been operational. The subcontractor had, nine months before the accident, pointed out to KEPCO that they had missed that area of the turbine in their regular inspections, but the company neglected to follow up. What’s more, the accident occurred not two months after a series of falsifications had been discovered in generator data.
According to Masanori Nakata, author of Why Do Companies Cause Scandals? (会社はなぜ不祥事を起こしてしまうのか), KEPCO had a reputation as slackers for safety.
The KEPCO accident would have been unavoidable had it not been for the simple fact that those in charge didn’t consider the safety worth it. Important information from the subcontracting company got outright ignored by KEPCO, possibly considered too insignificant of a problem to deal with.
This common problem is exemplified by the fact that health and safety regulations at KEPCO had become little more than unenforced guidelines. They looked good on paper, and that’s where they stayed while no one considered them important enough to carry out.
But why ignore clearly defined regulations? Nakata believes that the human condition, and our ability to adapt to even a dangerous situation, caused both KEPCO and the subcontractors to lose their sense of danger. After playing with fire and getting used to the heat, who would imagine getting burned?