Commission Calls Fukushima Nuclear Crisis a Man-Made Disaster

The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture, a parliamentary inquiry concluded on Thursday.

The report, released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, also warned that the plant may have been damaged by the earthquake on March 11, 2011, even before the arrival of a tsunami -- a worrying assertion as the quake-prone country starts to bring its reactor fleet back online.

The commission challenged some of the main story lines that the government and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have put forward to explain what went wrong in the early days of the crisis.

Despite assigning widespread blame, the report also avoids calling for censure of specific executives or officials. Some citizens' groups have demanded that Tepco executives be investigated on charges of criminal negligence -- a move Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission's chairman, said Thursday was out of its purview. But criminal prosecution "is a matter for others to pursue," Mr. Kurokawa said at a news conference after the report's release.

"It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response," Mr. Kurokawa, a medical doctor and an academic fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said in the report's introduction.

The 641-page report criticized the plant's operator -- the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco -- as being too quick to dismiss earthquake damage as a cause of the fuel meltdowns at three of the plant's six reactors, which overheated when the site lost power. Tepco has asserted that the plant withstood the earthquake that rocked eastern Japan, instead blaming the disaster on what some experts have called a "once-in-a-millennium" tsunami that ensued. Such a rare calamity was beyond the scope of contingency planning, Tepco executives have suggested, and was unlikely to pose a threat to Japan's other nuclear reactors in the foreseeable future.

But by suggesting that the plant may have sustained extensive damage from the earthquake -- a far more frequent occurrence in Japan -- the report in effect casts doubts on the safety of Japan's entire fleet of nuclear plants. The report came just as a nuclear reactor in western Japan came back online Thursday, the first to restart since the Fukushima crisis.

The parliamentary report, based on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people, suggests that reactor No. 1, in particular, may have suffered earthquake damage -- including the possibility that pipes burst from the shaking, leading to a loss of cooling even before the tsunami hit the plant about 30 minutes after the initial earthquake. It emphasized that a full assessment would require better access to the inner workings of the reactors, which could take years.

"However, it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami)," the report said, "and not on the more foreseeable quake."

The report, submitted to the Japanese Parliament on Thursday, also contradicted accounts put forward by previous investigations that described the prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan, as a decisive leader who ordered Tepco not to abandon the plant as it spiraled out of control. There is no evidence that the operator planned to withdraw all its employees from the plant, the report said, and meddling from Mr. Kan -- including his visit to the plant a day after the accident -- confused the initial response.

Instead, the report by the commission -- which heard testimony from Mr. Kan and a former Tepco president, Masataka Shimizu -- described a breakdown in communications between the prime minister's office and Tepco, blaming both sides for vague and ineffective information-sharing.

"The prime minister made his way to the site to direct the workers who were dealing with the damaged core," the report said, an action that "diverted the attention and time of the on-site operational staff and confused the line of command."

The report blasted Mr. Shimizu, on the other hand, for his "inability to clearly report to the Kantei," or prime minister's office, "the intentions of the operators," which exacerbated the government's misunderstanding and mistrust of Tepco's response.

The commission also charged that the government, Tepco and nuclear regulators failed to implement basic safety measures despite being aware of risks posed by earthquakes, tsunamis and other events that might cut off power systems and put nuclear plants at risk. Even though the government-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission revised earthquake resistance standards in 2006 and ordered nuclear operators around the country to inspect their reactors, for example, Tepco did not carry out any checks, and regulators did not follow up, the report said.

The report blamed the tepid response on collusion between the company, the government, and regulators -- all of which had "betrayed the nation's right to safety from nuclear accidents." Tepco "manipulated its cozy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations," the report said.

"There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures before March 11. The accident occurred because Tepco did not take these measures," and regulators went along, the report said. For Tepco, new regulations would have made running its plants more expensive and cumbersome, and weakened their standing in potential lawsuits brought about by anti-nuclear groups, the report said.

"That was enough motivation for Tepco to aggressively oppose new safety regulations and draw out negotiations with regulators," it said.

Meanwhile the report also faults the government as failing to develop evacuation plans for the public and was slow to alert local residents to the disaster. The report found that many residents within the plant's radius of 10 kilometers, or about six miles, had been oblivious of the unfolding crisis for more than 12 hours.

The report reserved its most damning language for its criticism of a culture in Japan that suppresses dissent and outside opinion, which might have prompted changes to the country's lax nuclear controls.

"What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan,' " Mr. Kurokawa said. "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program;' our groupism; and our insularity."

Shuya Nomura, a committee member and a professor of the Chuo Law School, said the report had tried to "shed light on Japan's wider structural problems, on the pus that pervades Japanese society." He added, "This report contains hints on how Japanese society needs to change."

[Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, NYT, Tokio, 05Jul12]

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