Culture of Complicity Blamed in Japan’s Nuclear Disaster

As nuclear experts and industry watchdogs seek explanations for the institutional breakdown in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster, many are pointing to a culture of cozy relationships among companies, regulators and politicians that produced a blase attitude toward safety.

As The New York Times reports, in 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American nuclear inspector, went to the nation’s main nuclear energy regulator with a startling find: the Tokyo Electric Power Co. was covering up a cracked steam dryer at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Despite a whistleblower law that should have protected Sugaoka, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or NISA, divulged the inspector’s identity to the power company, ruining his career as an inspector in Japan. Instead of forcing Tepco to undergo expensive repairs, the regulators let it slide.

Such was the culture of complicity in Japan’s nuclear industry, critics say, leading up to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

More evidence of the cozy relationship between nuclear companies and regulators is the 10-year extension given to the oldest of Fukushima’s reactors just weeks before the disaster. The decision to grant the extension beyond the 40-year statutory limit came despite safety warnings.

What’s more, experts raised the possibility of a catastrophic tsunami years ago, but their concerns were waved away.

As a result, the sea walls were far too low to protect against the towering waves that crashed to the shore last month, and backup generators were placed at ground level, vulnerable to flooding. Those flaws eventually figured prominently in the plant’s partial meltdown, the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

Some critics say that NISA’s regulatory abilities are compromised by virtue of the agency being a division of the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, which also is charged with boosting the nuclear industry. The concern is that, as officials in the ministry cycle in and out of its various divisions over the course of a career, many will go from regulating to promoting the industry once more, fostering cozy ties with nuclear power companies that undermine effective regulation.

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2 comments to “Culture of Complicity Blamed in Japan’s Nuclear Disaster”

  1. Toby Marshall

    It is not a racial issue, it is a cultural issue, very similar to Minamata disease in the collusion of gov’t and industry. You will find, if you dig a bit, that the gov’t is, through means direct and indirect, the major shareholder in all of the regional power companies/monopolies, and after the Niigata quake of ’97 the gov’t ordered a review of nuclear safety standards because of problems at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa on the one hand, while on the other ordering that standards should not be set so high that any operating plants would be forced to close. Chubu Electric built Hamaoka directly on top of the confluence of three plates which regularly cause M8 Tokai quakes, which Are also connected to Nankai and Tonankai quakes. When asked how they could build on such a dangerous spot they answered that it was the best that they could find.

    We interviewed one of Japan’s top seismologists, and he told us that they have all known for years that safety standards for plants are inadequate based on recent advances in the field, but they must “speak with small voices” because all their research is funded by the gov’t. It is impossible, or at least prohibitive, to retrofit existing plants, so SOP is to keep quiet and hope that nothing bad happens.

    Something bad did happen, and we have three reliable sources who all say that there is strong evidence that the quake itself critically damaged at least two of the reactors, probably shearing pipes to the suppression pools and/or breaking welds holding the 16 sections of the pool together. How else can you pump 14000 tons of water in a vessel with a capacity of 7000?

    The elephant in the room is that it was the quake which caused the main and fundamental damage to the reactors, the tsunami only added insult to injury. This means that something like half of Japan’s reactors are vulnerable to quakes. In many cases the reactor buildings are certified to a higher standard than accessory equipment. This is, in fact, the case with Hamaoka, where several reactors are certified to 600 gal, but the emergency cooling systems only to 470 gal. If there is a blowout in Hamaoka it will directly affect 50,000,000 people, as it sits almost exactly midway between Nagoya and Tokyo.

    Shinkansen and genpatsu are two very different stories.

  2. Socrateos

    Oh please. Don’t make it a racial issue.
    How then do you explain their other systems that are safest among the developed nations, such as super fast train system?

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