BY K S PARTHASARATHY
By now, the accident at Fukushima nuclear power plant has been reviewed by many specialist bodies. The Japanese cabinet set up a committee in May 2011.
It was asked to make policy recommendations by investigating the causes of the accident and ensuing damage, on measures to prevent the further spread of damage caused by the accident and a recurrence of similar accidents in the future. The second was an independent commission set up by the Japanese Parliament. Both panels released their final reports on July 23 and July 5, respectively. Though the reports apply only to Japan, they offer lessons for all.
Cabinet panel report
The cabinet panel stated that the fundamental problem lies in the fact that utilities, including (plant operator) TEPCO, and the government have failed to see the danger as reality as they were bound by a myth of nuclear safety and the notion that severe accidents do not happen at nuclear plants in their country.
The report, completed by a government-appointed panel including scholars, journalists, lawyers and engineers revealed that TEPCO was not sufficiently prepared for such an accident or that natural disasters might lead to large-scale core damage. The panel demanded that the vulnerability of individual facilities for “various internal and external events” should be identified by comprehensive safety analysis. It wanted the setting up of a crisis management system for a nuclear disaster.
While conceding that the accident was initiated by a natural disaster – an earthquake and tsunami – panel noted that there had been “various complex problems” behind the accident. The report criticised communications during the crisis and says the government should set up a body to provide information in an emergency to the public “promptly, accurately and in an easily understandable as well as clear-cut (not misleading) manner.”
Parliament panel report
Contrary to popular belief that the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was caused by natural causes, the Independent Commission set up by the Japanese Parliament concluded that it was “the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.” The commission asserted that the accident 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.”
“How could such an accident occur in Japan, a nation that takes such great pride in its global reputation for excellence in engineering and technology?” the commission voiced the cliché which was in the minds of everyone. There is no basis to classify some countries as having superior safety culture.
The report listed many errors and wilful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11. “Since 2006, the regulators and TEPCO were aware of the risk that a total outage of electricity at the Fukushima Daiichi plant might occur if a tsunami were to reach the level of the site. They were also aware of the risk of reactor core damage from the loss of seawater pumps in the case of a tsunami larger than assumed in the Japan Society of Civil Engineers estimation. Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) knew that TEPCO had not prepared any measures to lessen or eliminate the risk, but failed to provide specific instructions to remedy the situation.”
“For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey – especially to a global audience – is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster.” Mr Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Commission admitted in the foreword to the report. “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’” “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 programme’; our groupism; and our insularity” he added candidly. “Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same,” he clarified.
The Commission observed that the regulators also had a negative attitude towards importing new advances in knowledge and technology from overseas. If NISA had passed on to TEPCO, measures that were included in a relevant US security order that followed the 9/11 terrorist action, and if TEPCO had put the measures in place, the accident may have been preventable.
The report found that the regulators did not monitor or supervise nuclear safety. Their lack of expertise resulted in “regulatory capture,” and the postponement of the implementation of relevant regulations. They avoided their direct responsibilities by letting operators apply regulations on a voluntary basis. “Replacing people or changing the names of institutions will not solve the problems. Unless these root causes are resolved, preventive measures against future similar accidents will never be complete,” the report cautioned.
The Commission made sweeping recommendations: monitoring of the regulatory body by the Parliament (DIET); reforming the crisis management system; monitoring of operators; ensuring government responsibility for public health and welfare; specifying criteria for the new regulatory body; reforming laws related to nuclear energy and developing a system of independent investigation commissions.
The report is a wakeup call for all in nuclear business. Complacency by any stake holder anywhere in the world is unacceptable. Regulatory agency must be uncompromising on safety shortfalls. It must be transparent and proactive and must revisit recurring and pending issues, if any, and resolve them promptly. Conflict of interest must not influence its decision making.
While it is scientifically accurate to claim that such a disaster will not occur in Indian nuclear power plants as they comply with all geotechnical requirements, everyone must be eternally vigilant against complacency and shortfalls in safety culture.