Inept and Ill-Prepared: A Closer Look at the Fukushima Report

An independent Japanese commission that investigated last year's nuclear disaster at Fukushima released its findings on Thursday, putting the blame for the disaster squarely on the shoulders of the Japanese government and the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

This article is from the archive of our partner .

An independent Japanese commission that investigated last year's nuclear disaster at Fukushima released its findings on Thursday, putting the blame for the disaster squarely on the shoulders of the Japanese government and the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

The conclusion was blunt: "The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011." The commission also noted, "the accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly 'manmade.'"

The panel, called the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), headed by Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, found that shortcomings in the Japanese government as well as TEPCO, which ran the plant, contributed to the disaster that followed an earthquake and a tsunami on March 11, 2011. It was the second worst nuclear meltdown in history, displacing tens of thousands of local residents and spreading radiation all across Japan and into the food chain. Daily radiations readings are now as much a part of Japanese life as the weather reports.

The commission itself was the first of its kind in Japan. Independent, third party accident investigation commissions have been established in a number of foreign countries in response to serious accidents, but never in Japan. In a surprise move, the Diet even granted them the power of subpoena. In the U.S., the Kemeny Commission that investigated the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island is well known.

The final report spans over 600 pages but there are some findings that were of particular interest:

The earthquake may have played a role in the meltdown

NAIIC said there was credible evidence that initial damage from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that preceded the tsunami's arrival had caused damage to the plant, and played a role in the accident.  

"We cannot rule out the possibility that a small-scale LOCA (loss-of-coolant accident) occurred at the reactor No. 1 in particular."

The relation of the earthquake to the meltdown is still not clear but as The Atlantic Wire noted last year, there were reports of piping breaking and coolant loss in the 40 minutes before the tsunami came and knocked out most of the power to the plant.

The government and TEPCO had previously been reluctant to admit the earthquake may have contributed to the disaster, sticking to the belief that rising waters from the tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the plant and triggered reactor meltdowns. TEPCO in their own "self-serving" internal report released last month, still stuck to the defense that the chief cause of the accidents was the enormity of the tsunami that hit the plant, "which was beyond all expectations."

The commission not only cast doubts on the role of the tsunami, it also found that TEPCO was well aware of the tsunami risk.

"It is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The Commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami), as they (TEPCO) wrote in their midterm report, and not on the more foreseeable earthquake. Through our investigation, we have verified that the people involved were aware of the risk from both earthquakes and tsunami. Further, the damage to Unit 1 was caused not only by the tsunami but also by the earthquake."

Who is at fault? Why did the accident happen?

The report placed blame on the Japanese government, the regulatory agencies that were too cozy with the Tokyo Electric Power Company, but mostly TEPCO.

The report catalogs failure after failure to respond to safety risks, even after they were known. They failed to follow advice from the United States as well.

One passage in particular, is a microcosm of the many screw-ups that led to what may be the worst meltdown in atomic history. The final sentence, in italics, makes TEPCO and NISA (The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) out to be the grand villains in this atomic tragedy:

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. The 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.

We found evidence that the regulatory agencies would explicitly ask about the operators’ intentions whenever a new regulation was to be implemented. For example, NISA informed the operators that they did not need to consider a possible station blackout (SBO) because the probability was small and other measures were in place. It then asked the operators to write a report that would give the appropriate rationale for why this consideration was unnecessary.

The regulators also had a negative attitude toward the importation of new advances in knowledge and technology from overseas. If NISA had passed on to TEPCO measures that were included in the B.5.b subsection of the U.S. security order that followed the 9/11 terrorist action, and if TEPCO had put the measures in place, the accident may have been preventable.

There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to March 11. The accident occurred because TEPCO did not take these measures, and NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) went along. They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization’s self interest, and not in the interest of public safety.

Sources close to the investigation stated that TEPCO and NISA were extremely uncooperative in providing materials, and the commission had to use their legislative mandate to order NISA and TEPCO to turn over documents and others data on more than ten occasions. TEPCO, which has a dark history of cover-ups and collusion with anti-social forces, surprised no one by their lack of cooperation. (Note: The usually cool-headed Chairman Kurokawa, during the hearings, did at one point loose his cool with the evasive answers of TEPCO executives, and looked like he wished to chant, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire/Hang Yourself On a TEPCO wire”. It certainly seemed that way.)

What impact will the report have?

From the report:

We conclude that TEPCO was too quick to cite the tsunami as the cause of the nuclear accident and deny that the earthquake caused any damage. We believe there is a possibility that the earthquake damaged equipment necessary for ensuring safety, and that there is also a possibility that a small-scale LOCA occurred in Unit 1. We hope these points will be examined further by a third party.

By clearly placing blame on TEPCO and government agencies for the disaster and their failure to prevent it from happening, the commission may have a serious impact on the investigation of top TEPCO officials for criminal negligence resulting in death and/or injury. The Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office has been investigating who was at fault for months, and other citizens have sent letters of criminal complaint on charges of environmental destruction to the Fukushima Prosecutors as well.  The recommendations made by the commission, and their note that further investigation is warranted may be taken as a mandate for a more intense investigation of TEPCO officials and possibly even NISA officials on criminal charges.

It is not unprecedented for high-ranking officials in a Japanese regulatory agency to be charged, along with executives of the agency they were supposed to supervise, on involuntary manslaughter charges. The most famous case in recent years involved pharmaceutical firm Green Cross, which received preferential treatment from the Ministry of Health and Welfare—allowing them to sell unheated blood products, known to be unsafe, and thus infecting over a thousand people with HIV. Many former Ministry of Health bureaucrats had retired and taken jobs at Green Cross, creating a an overly friendly relationship between the company and the agency that was supposed to make sure they acted in harmony with the public welfare.

Japan has a history of corporate and government collusion in which corporate profits are placed above the welfare of the people. Not that this is unique to Japan.

Although the report does not conclude that the earthquake caused the meltdown, it does raise the question of whether or not Japan’s remaining nuclear power plants are indeed safe. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, for a short time all of Japan's nuclear reactors were eventually shut down and put through safety checks. The first of the country's 50 reactors was started up again last month in Oi, in Fukui Prefecture.

However, the restarting of the plant was met with nationwide protests, and by June 29, almost 17,000 people gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s residence to voice their opposition to nuclear power

The commission’s report is not a battering ram but it does give further impetus to the anti-nuclear movement in Japan by demonstrating how inept and ill-prepared both the Japanese government and its nuclear plant operators are at dealing with disasters---or even the day-to-day safe operation of nuclear power facilities.

Chairman Kurokawa, has stated several times that the purpose of the investigation was to clarify where responsibility lies and to prevent such an accident from occurring a second time. Noting that the nuclear accident in Japan affected other neighboring nations as well,  "[Our purpose] was to first carry out an accident investigation on behalf of the people; secondly to make proposals for the future; and thirdly to carry out Japan’s responsibility as a member of the world community," he said during the early press conferences. The final report and a sound list of recommendations, lives up to most of the commission goals.

Note: We have deferred to the NIICA official translation of the report whenever possible.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.