Why Fukushima Was A Man-Made Disaster


The anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster falls this Sunday. Around 100,000 people were evacuated because of the nuclear disaster. Most are still unable to return to their homes and some never will. The toll on the health and mental well-being of residents has been horrendous — one indication being the sharp increase in suicide rates after the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster.

It will be decades before the ruined reactors are decommissioned. Decades before the legal battles have concluded. Contamination with long-lived radionuclides will persist for many generations: caesium-137 will be a concern for around 300 years. One preliminary study estimates a long-term cancer death toll of "around 1000"; another study estimates "~100s cases" of fatal cancers from Fukushima fallout.

Fukushima was by far Japan’s worst-ever nuclear accident, but it can also be seen as the latest in a long line of accidents in Japan’s nuclear industry — an industry notorious for its dangerous mismanagement, secrecy, dishonesty and slack regulation. Whereas the earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, Fukushima was a man-made disaster.

In August 2002, details were released of 29 cases of "malpractice" by TEPCO at its Fukushima and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plants. Later that year it was revealed that these practices had gone on since 1977 (if not earlier), the total number was put at nearly 200, and that all Japanese nuclear utilities were involved. In 2007, utilities admitted to 306 cases of malpractice, of which 104 involved nuclear power plants.

The worst incidents could hardly have been more serious. TEPCO concealed at least six emergency shut-downs of reactors at Fukushima. Two critical accidents — involving unplanned and uncontrolled atomic fission in power reactors — were concealed.

That’s just the tip of TEPCO’s iceberg — and TEPCO is not the only Japanese nuclear utility that has engaged in dangerous, dishonest and secretive malpractices. Barely a year has passed without further admissions. To give just one of the dozens of examples, Chugoku Electric apologised in March 2010 for its failure to carry out inspections on 123 pieces of equipment at its Shimane nuclear plant. Two months later, the number was increased to 506 pieces of equipment.

These admissions have at times been followed by apologies, resignations and promises of reform. Sometimes there has even been a little reform — a little. But the nuclear utilities have not fundamentally changed their stripes. And it is only in the wake of the Fukushima disaster that there been a commitment to finally separate the regulator, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), from the all-powerful, pro-nuclear Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

To understand how these problems could continue year after year after year requires an understanding of Japan’s "nuclear village". Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson neatly summed up the problem in the New York Times last April: "Just as in any Japanese village, the like-minded — nuclear industry officials, bureaucrats, politicians and scientists — have prospered by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions, and political, financial and regulatory support. The few openly sceptical of nuclear power’s safety become village outcasts, losing out on promotions and backing."

"It’s all about money," says one of the politicians who has resisted the temptations of the nuclear lobby. Utility executives accounted for nearly three-quarters of total individual donations to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2009, for example.

Officials are transferred repeatedly between the regulatory and promotional divisions of METI; they scarcely know whether they’re coming or going. There is also a revolving door between government agencies and nuclear utilities. Government officials often "descend from heaven" — moving from government agencies to well-paid jobs with nuclear utilities. TEPCO appears to have a reserved seat set aside for government officials. From 1959 to 2010, the New York Times reports, four former ministry officials successively served as vice president of TEPCO.

There is also a revolving door between nuclear utilities and Parliament. For example the Liberal Democrats selected Tokio Kano, a former TEPCO vice president, for a seat in Parliament. He served two six-year terms in Parliament until 2010, working tirelessly to promote the interests of the nuclear utilities, and more recently he has returned to TEPCO to work as an adviser.

And there are revolving doors linking utilities to the two nuclear regulators — NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission. In a process known as amaagari, or "ascent to heaven", the regulators often employ retired or active engineers from nuclear utilities. Kenji Sumita, a former deputy chair of the Nuclear Safety Commission, said last year that: "Japan’s nuclear officials have tried to juggle promotion and regulation but the result has been numerous accidents and troubles."

And there is a revolving door between Japan’s nuclear village and the international regulator, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2009, a US cable released by WikiLeaks said that over the past decade, the IAEA’s department of safety and security "suffered tremendously because of [deputy director general]Taniguchi’s weak management and leadership skills."

Japanese utilities have also avoided international scrutiny. The IAEA carried out safety inspections at Fukushima in 1992 and at Chubu’s Hamaoko plant in 1995, finding a total of 90 deficiencies in safety procedures including "weakness in emergency plan procedures", "insufficient event analysis on near-misses" and "lack of training for plant personnel on severe accident management". The IAEA was not invited to carry out any further safety inspections after 1995 and TEPCO and Chubu resisted the recommendations of the IAEA experts.

So, precious little scrutiny from the IAEA — it is compromised by its revolving doors and by its promotional aims and activities, and it has too little authority and too few resources for its safeguards and safety roles. With the exception of a few courageous whistleblowers, overseas suppliers and contractors to Japan’s utilities — including Australia’s uranium mining companies — have been too busy counting their money to take any interest in safety breaches, scandals and accidents in customer countries.

Given the recurring patterns of mismanagement and inadequate regulation in Japan’s nuclear industry, it is no surprise that there have been dozens of accidents over the past 20 years.

TEPCO did not adequately protect the Fukushima reactor against earthquake and tsunami risks, nor was it forced to by the government regulator. In particular, the failure to adequately protect back-up power generators was a direct cause of the nuclear disaster that began unfolding shortly after the other two disaster on 11 March — the earthquake and the tsunami.

Without back-up generators, it was only a matter of time before the situation spiralled out of control as it so dramatically did with a succession of meltdowns, fires and explosions in the days after the earthquake.

TEPCO’s preparations for and protections against a tsunami were "quite insufficient" according to the Investigation Committee established by the Japanese government last year. A growing number of former TEPCO executives and engineers have expressed similar views over the past year, as have numerous independent experts.

So the Fukushima disaster wasn’t an act of god; it was brought about by the myriad failings of TEPCO and the Japanese nuclear village and, to a lesser extent, the global nuclear village.

It would be naive to believe that the Fukushima disaster will inevitably lead to root-and-branch improvements in Japan’s nuclear industry. The problems run too deep. Former Fukushima Prefecture governor Eisako Sato argues that ordinary people must "take democracy into their own hands" and "if they do not, in 10 years time we will see another disaster."

It would also be naive to imagine that the problems are unique to Japan. There has been a thread of commentary ascribing the Fukushima disaster to cultural traits unique to Japan. But the main problems in Japan are evident elsewhere (including Australia): cost-cutting and corner-cutting in the pursuit of profit; captured bureaucracies; weak, compromised regulators; media disinterest — and on it goes.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.