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T. Endo: What Should We Learn from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident?

Address to UPF-Japan's Peace Diplomats Forum, July 18, 2012
by Tetsuya Endo, UPF Ambassador for Peace, Former Acting Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, and
Member of the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Accident

What happened?

On March 11th 2011, an enormous earthquake hit the northeastern region of Japan at a magnitude of 9.0, one of the most powerful quakes in Japanese history and even in the world. It was followed by a massive tsunami causing devastating damage and casualties.

The quake and tsunami struck the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station consisting of six nuclear reactors. Fukushima Dai-ichi itself could barely sustain the jolts of magnitude 6 and received serious damage by the tsunami that followed.

The accident rivals that devastating Chernobyl Accident of 1986, which was measured at Level 7 on the International Nuclear Evaluation Scale (INES) of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the worst ever. Thus, the Great East Japan Earthquake in fact caused triple disasters, or even quadruple including radioactive contamination to the environment.

The tsunami waves reached over 15 meters high, far higher than the TEPCO-anticipated maximum of 5 meters, destroying all the emergency diesel power generators, power distribution panels, and motors of the seawater cooling pumps. The external power supply was cut because of the jolts, disabling emergency generators. The nuclear reactors were rendered totally without electricity.

In coping with nuclear reactor accidents, there are three ironclad rules:

  • Stop it;
  • Cool it; and finally
  • Contain it.

TEPCO managed to stop the reactors, avoiding a Chernobyl-like situation with reactors out of control. But in order to cool down the reactors and the pool of spent fuel, they had to pour in raw seawater when the power cut discontinued the pumping of water and circulation of cooling water.

As for containing the radioactive materials, because of the hydrogen explosions at reactor units No. 1, No. 3, and No. 4, some quantities of iodine 131 and cesium 137 did leak out.

This nuclear power plant accident sent shock waves throughout the world; as they say, “A nuclear accident knows no boundary!” The Chernobyl accident involved nuclear reactors of different types that were managed by the Soviet Communist regime without containment covers around the pressure vessels. They were akin to naked reactors with little attention to their safety.

In comparison, Japanese nuclear reactors like the ones running in the Fukushima Dai-ichi had enjoyed an excellent reputation for safety. Thus, The Economist magazine (2010.3.10) said, “Et tu, Japan!,” indicating far greater shock to the world than the Chernobyl accident.

At the moment of this writing, the nuclear reactors are “stopped and kept at low temperature” (in cold shut down), with little possibility of another hydrogen explosion or re-criticality. But the reactor cores which did melt down have been left untouched at the bottom of the containment structures, while the quantity of radioactive contaminated water has swelled constantly because cooling water has to be pumped into the reactors and circulated.

While the No. 1 through No. 4 units of Fukushima Dai-ichi will be scrapped, the scrapping process could take several decades, like the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Those who were exposed to radioactivity or had to evacuate the affected areas exceeded 100,000 people, many of them having little prospects of returning to their original domiciles. De-contamination could take much time and work. The closing chapter of the accident has barely begun.

The setting up of the accident’s investigation commission

We shall never allow recurrence of this sort of nuclear accident. If one ever does occur, we must prevent negative effects, especially keeping environmental radioactive contamination to the minimum. To that end, we need to thoroughly assess accidents in order to dig into their causes, direct or indirect, and to contemplate countermeasures to be implemented before and after any future accidents.

For that purpose, various investigation commissions were set up, mainly by the Japanese government and the Diet. Although these commissions have a very powerful mandate, there have been concerns on how effectively they can pursue facts and truth involving government responsibilities and liabilities. That was why a private, Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Accident was set up, away from all influences or vested interests. I participated in this commission, which interviewed over 300 individuals concerned including former Prime Minister Kan. Following a six-month investigation, we submitted the results at the end of February 2012.

Some problems raised by the report – lessons to be learned from the accident

The Fukushima tragedy, needless to say, was caused by the natural calamity of earthquake and tsunami, but it was aggravated by human failures. History entertains no “ifs,” but let me challenge that assumption:

  • If Japan, particularly the utilities and the government, had paid attention to outside advice;
  • If the nuclear power plants and equipment had been properly designed and laid out;
  • If adequate preparations had been made against severe accidents;

Then, we might have avoided the major accident like this latest one, or at least we could have significantly contained the damages.

I would hereby specify the main problems and lessons to be learned from the latest accident, in random order:

Public myth about ‘absolute safety’: Not only the regulatory authorities and power utilities but local residents and the public in general subscribed to the myth of “absolute safety,” hampering debates on a possible accident. Influenced by the safety myth of no serious accidents, preventive trainings were rather cosmetic, as the TEPCO and the government agencies indulged in collective complacency towards accidents.

Back-scratching relations within a closed ‘nuclear’ community: There was virtually a closed community among industry (electric power and nuclear plant companies), bureaucrats, politicians, and media professionals. Everyone stagnated in inertia in this sensitive situation. Ambiguous responsibilities and liabilities exist within state policies which are implemented by private utilities. Namely, the state authorities determine nuclear policies and the utilities apply them, blurring responsibilities and liabilities for safety regulation.

'Galapagos phenomenon' through national complacency: Japan’s nuclear safety regulatory system has become a so-called Galapagos phenomenon, being left out of international standards; meanwhile the regulatory agencies lack capabilities and expertise to implement the regulations.

Many people involved in the nuclear circle realized the adverse effects of the compartmentalized bureaucracy as well as the perfunctory test regime on the nuclear power stations, such as “Check pre-determined points!” or ‘Watch the trees but not the forest!” But they apparently refrained from raising issues on their own. They overlooked or took lightly IAEA recommendations and international advice. They repeated optimistic but ambiguous statements, causing confusion, and suspended public announcements. Their communication overseas was much poorer. As a result, there is a loss of faith in the Japanese government and TEPCO on the part of the public and the international community, due to poor communication with the public and the international community.

Final comments

Our challenges ahead include clarifying our lessons on both domestic and international dimensions by means of thorough investigation into the accident as well as promptly applying these lessons. We should produce a road map showing future prospects in the medium to long term. In this regard, it was indeed welcome news that safety regulations and the promotion of nuclear energy are finally to be dealt with separately, adhering to advice from abroad.

Owing to the latest accident, people’s good faith in nuclear energy has been greatly reduced while trust in the public authorities and the electric companies has fallen to a rock-bottom low. It will not be easy to recover the lost credibility, requiring a long time and sincere efforts including transparency which is a very vital element. In a democratic nation, nuclear energy cannot be sustained without popular trust and support. At the same time, people should deal with matters related to energy and atomic power in more reasonable and cool-headed fashion.