TEPCO becoming the sacrificial lamb in disaster blame game

03-20-2011 Saidani

Is TEPCO to blame for the deterioration of the natural disaster in the form of an earthquake and tsunami into a man-made disaster?  Yes.  Should they take all the blame?  No.

Crucial efforts to tame Japan’s crippled nuclear plant were delayed by concerns over damaging valuable power assets and by initial passivity on the part of the government, people familiar with the situation said, offering new insight into the management of the crisis.

Tepco “hesitated because it tried to protect its assets,” said Akira Omoto, a former Tepco executive and a member of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, an official advisory body involved in the effort to tame the plant.

Of course, the protection of assets was the government priority as well as we have documented.

Kan strongly ordered the company not to withdraw its employees from the power plant, which has been facing a series of problems since Friday’s massive quake, ranging from explosions to radiation leaks.

In the event of withdrawal from there, I’m 100 percent certain that the company will collapse,” Kan said. ”I want you all to be determined.”

And it seems that the government and Omoto’s regulatory body did little over the years to ensure the safety of the facilities.

The cascade of events at Fukushima had been foretold in a report published in the U.S. two decades ago. The 1990 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency responsible for safety at the country’s power plants, identified earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to failure of cooling systems as one of the “most likely causes” of nuclear accidents from an external event.

While the report was cited in a 2004 statement by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, it seems adequate measures to address the risk were not taken by Tokyo Electric, said Jun Tateno, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and professor at Chuo University.

The government seems to have reported the problems 7 years ago and then did nothing to follow up to make sure TEPCO made the proper improvements.  To now point the finger at TEPCO is disingenuous and deceptive.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, 67, working as an engineer at Babcock Hitachi K.K., helped design and supervise the manufacture of a $250 million steel pressure vessel for Tokyo Electric in 1975. Today, that vessel holds the fuel rods in the core of the No. 4 reactor at Fukushima’s Dai-Ichi plant, hit by explosion and fire after the tsunami.

Tanaka says the vessel was damaged in the production process. He says he knows because he orchestrated the cover-up. When he brought his accusations to the government more than a decade later, he was ignored, he says.

The accident occurred when Tanaka and his team were strengthening the steel in the pressure vessel, heating it in a furnace to more than 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature that melts metal. Braces that should have been inside the vessel during the blasting were either forgotten or fell over. After it cooled, Tanaka found that its walls had warped.

‘Felt Like a Hero’

The law required the flawed vessel be scrapped, a loss that Tanaka said might have bankrupted the company. Rather than sacrifice years of work and risk the company’s survival, Tanaka used computer modeling to devise a way to reshape the vessel so that no one would know it had been damaged. He did that with Hitachi’s blessings, he said.

“I saved the company billions of yen,” Tanaka said in an interview March 12, the day after the earthquake. Tanaka says he got a 3 million yen bonus ($38,000) from Hitachi and a plaque acknowledging his “extraordinary” effort in 1974. “At the time, I felt like a hero.”

That changed with Chernobyl. Two years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Tanaka went to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to report the cover-up he’d engineered more than a decade earlier. Hitachi denied his accusation and the government refused to investigate.

‘No Safety Problem’

Kenta Takahashi, an official at the NISA’s Power Generation Inspection Division, said he couldn’t confirm whether the agency’s predecessor, the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, conducted an investigation into Tanaka’s claim.

In 1988, Hitachi met with Tanaka to discuss the work he had done to fix the dent in the vessel. They concluded that there was no safety problem, said Hitachi spokesman Yuichi Izumisawa. “We have not revised our view since then,” Izumisawa said.

In 1990, Tanaka wrote a book called “Why Nuclear Power Is Dangerous” that detailed his experiences.

Tokyo Electric in 2002 admitted it had falsified repair reports at nuclear plants for more than two decades. Chairman Hiroshi Araki and President Nobuyama Minami resigned to take responsibility for hundred of occasions on which the company had submitted false data to the regulator.

Then in 2007, the utility said it hadn’t come entirely clean five years earlier. It had concealed at least six emergency stoppages at its Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station and a “critical” reaction at the plant’s No. 3 unit that lasted for seven hours.

This series of failures by the builders, operators, and regulators has been known for years and implicitly approved by the inaction of the government to enforce or question reports from TEPCO even after it was discovered to have lied.  The government can hardly put all the blame on TEPCO now when the government created an environment where the focus was on the protection of economic assets instead of safety.

Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismology professor at Kobe University, has said Japan’s history of nuclear accidents stems from an overconfidence in plant engineering. In 2006, he resigned from a government panel on reactor safety, saying the review process was rigged and “unscientific.”

“Regulators just rubber-stamp the utilities’ reports,” Takashi Nakata, a former Hiroshima Institute of Technology seismologist and an anti-nuclear activist, said at the time.

This is a bureaucratic nightmare for the people of Japan who pay the salaries of these people expecting rigid oversight of a dangerous though beneficial industry.  It is also a failure of the political class, as representatives of the people, to demand such strict regulation.

Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period.

This does not give the current DPJ government a pass.  Too many of the leaders of the DPJ and Kan cabinet were also aware of these reports and never made them an issue.  Some of the LDP politicians are now part of the DPJ power structure.  It is not an issue of political party but one of a political class that deals under the table with companies like TEPCO and Hitachi, where a guy like Keidanren chief Yonekura makes a phone call to political leaders and policy ensues.  It is an environment of corruption and the politics of favor that infests much more than the nuclear industry.  Everyone involved equally shares the blame.

Corporate Japan and the government may well escape their involvement in this disaster if they are able to focus the growing frustration and upcoming anger of the public on the actions of TEPCO.  But make no mistake, Japan, Inc. – and every division of power in it –  share the responsibility and should be held to account.

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