An independent parliamentary committee issued a report on Thursday on last year’s crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, concluding that the disaster was “man-made” and the result of “collusion” between Japan’s regulatory bodies and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the facility and Japan’s largest utility. Together, the report reads, “they effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.”
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The report eviscerates authorities’ infamous claim that the events of March 11, 2011 — which led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl — in which some 150,000 people were evacuated, were soteigai, or unimaginable, and therefore beyond prevention. On the contrary, the 10 members of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that “the direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable.” After a six-month independent investigation, the authors said the plant was unable to withstand the 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that followed simply because TEPCO and the regulators overseeing nuclear power and safety “failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements.”
The report comes at a highly awkward moment: on Sunday, Japan started generating nuclear power again in Ohi, a town in western Japan, after two months of having all reactors off-line. After March 11, Japan’s 50 functioning nuclear reactors had shut down one by one for regular safety checks and were unable to restart as they normally would because of widespread concern over the safety of nuclear power after Fukushima. The government, citing looming power shortages and the high cost of importing fossil fuel for thermal power plants, fought hard to get the Ohi reactor up and running again. Last week, tens of thousands marched in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Tokyo to protest the restart, and on Sunday, protesters blocked the road to a plant to prevent workers from getting on site.
Power generation began anyway. It’s impossible to say whether the report, had it been released a week ago, would have changed that. But it will certainly strengthen the resolve of the growing ranks of those who oppose nuclear power in Japan. The report plainly confirms what many have feared — that the government was so invested in using nuclear power to bolster Japan’s high standard of living and manufacturing-based economy that it balked at enforcing vigorous safety standards that could have slowed it down. After the 1970s oil crisis, Japan aggressively built nuclear reactors around the archipelago as a way to secure the nation’s energy independence. “Nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society,” wrote Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the commission, in the report. Before March 11, Japan relied on nuclear power for about 30% of its energy supply and was the world’s third largest nuclear power consumer after the U.S. and France.
The investigation also raises serious questions about how much of the damage that caused the triple meltdown in the reactors at Fukushima was attributable to the earthquake and what the risks are for other plants in earthquake-prone areas. Previous investigations have found no evidence of significant earthquake damage at the plant, but the committee says there is not enough substantive evidence to support that. “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,” the authors wrote. Much of the damage that could shed light on which natural disaster caused which problem is still inside the reactors’ containers, where radiation levels are still too high for anyone to go poke around. The report recommends that a new commission be set up to look into the cause of damage.
If the earthquake was responsible for more than previously thought, the implications for Japan’s energy policy are large. “If this reactor got some damage because of the earthquake, we really need to go back and revisit some of our assumptions that we have for the design basis of other reactors,” Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California professor of civil engineering, told Bloomberg. That, in turn, could lead to expensive retrofitting that could raise costs for the relatively inexpensive energy source.
Here are a few other noteworthy conclusions from the report’s executive summary:
- On ignoring the very real possibility of a large tsunami: “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 the tsunami were to reach the level of the site.”
- On the lack of a good evacuation plan: “Only 20% of the residents of the town hosting the plant knew about the accident when evacuation from the 3-km zone was ordered at 9:23 p.m. on March 11.”
- On incomplete and poorly disseminated information about radiation after the event: “[The government] failed to explain … the risks of radiation exposure to different segments of the population, such as infants and youths, expecting mothers, or people particularly susceptible to the risks of radiation.”
- On the insularity of Japan’s nuclear industry: “The regulators also had a negative attitude toward the importation of new advances in knowledge and technology from overseas. If [the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency] 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.”