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Fukushima truth still elusive even after inquiries

Publication Date : 09-08-2012


Five hundred days and four voluminous reports later, the truth about the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant remains elusive.

The Fukushima disaster was triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year.

A report by a government-appointed panel - the last of three independent inquiries into the disaster - was released late last month.

Like those of two other such inquiries - one by a private panel released in February and another by a Parliament-appointed committee earlier last month - the report was exhaustive but not conclusive.

The fourth report, an in-house inquiry conducted by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which runs the Fukushima facility, was released in June.

Nuclear energy advocates, their minds jolted by the Fukushima disaster, had hoped that the multiple inquiries would yield information to help the government prevent a repeat of the disaster, and to decide whether nearly 50 idled reactors throughout the country should be restarted.

Their hopes were, however, dashed.

All the inquiries suffer from a lack of first-hand examination of the evidence, since the risk of radiation prevents investigators from entering the Fukushima plant. Conclusions in the reports thus fall into the realm of conjecture and contradict one another.

Another disturbing outcome is that while some blame has been pinned on Tepco and the bureaucracy, so far no heads have had to roll.

One crucial question that all the inquiries failed to answer was whether the quake, or the tsunami, was responsible for crippling the reactors at Fukushima.

The answer would oblige the government to conduct a thorough reassessment of anti-quake and anti-tsunami measures for Japan's nuclear power plants.

But no definitive answer was forthcoming.

For instance, retired professor Yotaro Hatamura of Tokyo University, who headed the government panel, blames the disaster on the sudden loss of power caused by tsunami waves, shutting down vital cooling systems and leading to overheating of nuclear fuel rods.

The Parliament-appointed committee, headed by another retired Tokyo University don, says the quake may have been the culprit.

Hatamura, author of a popular book on learning from failures, blasts Tepco and nuclear regulators for betting on the nuclear safety myth.

"The basic problem lies in the myth that serious accidents will not happen," he said.

Meanwhile, doing all it can to defend itself, Tepco argues that it could not possibly have taken proper preventive measures as the scale of the tsunami could not have been foreseen.

In reality, an in-house study in 2008 apparently pointed to the possibility of tsunami of up to 10.2m, almost twice what the Fukushima plant was designed to withstand. But senior Tepco officials decided the risk was unrealistic and took no action.

There was only one thing all four reports agreed on - that then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan had created more confusion in an already dire situation through his direct intervention in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

Given the glaring inadequacies of the government's response to the disaster, many recommendations in the reports deal with general problems, beginning with revamping the crisis control system in the Prime Minister's Office.

It remains to be seen how seriously the government will treat the inquiries and their suggestions.

In May, the Noda administration ordered the restarting of two reactors in Fukui prefecture - on grounds that they were needed to prevent power blackouts in western Japan this summer - without waiting for the final report of the government panel.

Meanwhile, people are becoming more nervous each day with revelations by experts of new fault lines below existing reactors.

Perhaps the only reassuring point is the promise by the administration that inquiries into the disaster will not end.

Said Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono: "The government panel says that inquiries into the accident will not stop with its report. The lesson from Fukushima is that we have to continue doing this, for the next 40 years if necessary."

The number 40 happens to be the nominal lifespan of a nuclear reactor, a figure no doubt very much on the mind of the minister, who has been urged by power companies to approve the use of properly overhauled reactors beyond four decades.

Ultimately, it is not how many years it takes, but the absence of accidents over an extended period of time, coupled with frail human memories, that is likely to assure people that nuclear energy is all right - for those who want it in the first place.

The current dilemma faced by the Japanese serves as a timely reminder to all nations already dependent on nuclear energy, and the growing number wanting to join the club, that they may well have to face a similar problem in future.


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