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Lessons from Fukushima in improving nuke plant safety

Publication Date : 25-07-2012

 

Based on lessons learned from the results of investigations into the unprecedented nuclear power plant crisis, the Japanese government and electric power companies must work on measures to prevent future nuclear accidents.

The government's Nuclear Incident Investigation and Verification Committee, responsible for looking into the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, released its final report on Monday.

Investigation commissions of the Diet and Tepco as well as a private independent investigation panel have already released their respective reports on the crisis. With these four reports, clarification of the cause of the crisis and how it developed as well as identification of problems in the responses to it by the government and Tepco have come to an end for the moment.

However, it will take more time to uncover the full scope of the crisis. It is necessary from now on to review crisis countermeasures to secure the safety of nuclear power plants while continuing a probe into the Fukushima disaster.

Report denies quake damage

The government committee's investigation was characterised by detailed analysis of the technological aspects of the crisis based on a massive amount of data. This is because committee chairman Yotaro Hatamura, who advocates the "study of failure", placed importance on clarifying the truth of the crisis rather than finding out who is to blame.

The final report of the government's committee criticises reports by other investigation panels, saying much of their content is based on obvious misinterpretation of facts.

For example, the Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission emphasised the possibility that the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake may have destroyed important reactor functions. However, the government's committee rejected the possibility that the earthquake damaged the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant's Nos. 1 to 3 reactors in a way that would have impaired the containment of radiation.

The reactors' operation data show that important equipment was functioning normally until the tsunami hit the plant. The analysis by the government's committee, which identified the tsunami, not the earthquake, as the main cause of the crisis, is persuasive.

Since the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, the government has been working on measures against tsunami at nuclear power plants throughout the country. To reactivate idled reactors, we hope the government will explain the appropriateness of these measures to the public to ease their anxiety.

It is also important that the final report of the government's committee suggested the possibility that core meltdowns could have been prevented if Tepco had appropriately responded to the situation after the tsunami hit the plant. The report concluded that the reactors' core could have been cooled before meltdown if measures had been immediately taken to lower pressure in the reactors before the situation worsened.

Crisis response flawed

The report harshly evaluated Tepco's ability--or lack thereof to respond to crises.

Meanwhile, as other investigation commissions have done, the government committee had tough words about the then government's bungled handling of the crisis.

Regarding the crisis response by the Prime Minister's Office, the report says, "The lack of information, and its uneven distribution, made it inevitable for the office to make decisions without sufficient basis."

Then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Cabinet ministers failed to adequately utilise a crisis control centre set up in the basement of the Prime Minister's Office, where senior officials of relevant government offices were gathered. As a result, data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) was not used in giving evacuation guidance to residents.

The Democratic Party of Japan-led government failed to make effective use of the bureaucratic machine due to its erroneous implementation of what it calls "politician-led politics." The government is largely to blame for having confounded the situation.

Kan, who prided himself on being more familiar with nuclear matters than other Cabinet members, "didn't try to tackle the crisis systematically," the report says. The report criticises Kan for his intervention in frontline crisis control operations, including his visit to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant the day after it was crippled by the March 11 disaster.

The Prime Minister's Office asked the government offices concerned and Tepco to have prior consultations with it concerning the content of information to be published, thereby causing delays in providing information to the public on meltdown and other problems at the nuclear reactors.

It is natural that the panel pointed these problems out in its final report. Efforts must be made to improve the way information is handled in times of crisis.

Obsession with safety myth

As a reason for the failure to prevent the accident, the final report says, "Tepco and the government were obsessed with the myth that nuclear plants are safe," and criticises such a stance as a fundamental problem. The report also points out that the government, due to its fiscal constraints, "set aside disasters with a lower probability of occurrence" from a list of those subject to strengthened countermeasures.

In addition, the March 11 catastrophe was a complex disaster in which the nuclear crisis and natural disaster occurred simultaneously. It is essential to work out adequate precautionary measures to deal with a crisis that is anticipated to inflict serious damage even if the probability of its occurrence is slight.

The new nuclear regulatory commission to be established by the government must put priority on measures to be taken in ordinary times, such as formulating disaster-management programmes and conducting disaster-response drills, on the assumption that a serious accident will happen.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis has attracted global interest. The decommissioning of reactors, which will go on for a long time, and efforts to help disaster victims put their lives back together must be demonstrated, both at home and abroad.

In his personal impressions attached to the end of the report, Hatamura listed lessons from the disaster, including, "Simply creating the framework of a system does not mean it will work," and "Changes must be dealt with flexibly."

In addition to the importance of organisational reform, he stressed the need for members of an organisation to be aware that there could be oversight in human thinking and prepare for events beyond their assumptions.

All those involved in the nuclear power field must take these words to heart.

 

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