Japan Ignored Nuclear Risks, Official Says
Published: February 15, 2012
TOKYO — In surprisingly frank public testimony on Wednesday, Japan’s nuclear safety chief said the country’s regulations were fundamentally flawed and laid out a somber picture of a nuclear industry shaped by freewheeling power companies, toothless regulators and a government more interested in promoting nuclear energy than in safeguarding the health of its citizens.
Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press
The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, stricken by an earthquake and a tsunami last March, has led to widespread criticism of nuclear officials for their lax approach to safety, as well as for a bungled response that allowed meltdowns to occur at three of the plant’s six reactors.
The scale of the accident, which forced almost 100,000 people from their homes and contaminated a wide area of northeastern Japan, has put pressure on the government to explain why warnings about the plant’s safety went unheeded and global safety standards were ignored, even as officials promoted nuclear power as the country’s most reliable source of electricity.
Haruki Madarame, head of a panel of nuclear safety experts who provide technical advice to the government, told a Parliament-sponsored inquiry on Wednesday that Japanese officials had succumbed to a blind belief in the country’s technical prowess and failed to thoroughly assess the risks of building nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone country.
For example, officials did not give serious consideration to what would happen if electric power were lost at a nuclear station, because they believed that Japan’s power grid was far more reliable than those in other countries, he said. The March earthquake and tsunami cut off the Fukushima plant from the grid, leaving operators unable to keep the reactor cores from overheating.
“Though global safety standards kept on improving, we wasted our time coming up with excuses for why Japan didn’t need to bother meeting them,” Mr. Madarame said.
Officials also gave too little attention, he said, to new studies raising the possibility of large earthquakes off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. Mr. Madarame said he was to blame for some of the lapses, but that the Nuclear Safety Commission had a culture of complacency long before he took over in mid-2010.
His candid testimony comes at a time when the government is pushing to restart reactors around the country that were shut down following the accident. Only 3 of Japan’s 54 reactors are operating; the rest have been kept idle by local governments worried about safety.
To quell opposition, the central government has ordered new “stress tests” to assess whether the plants can withstand a major natural disaster. But the investigative commission’s hearings could undermine efforts to restart more reactors.
Mr. Madarame said the government should go far beyond the lax safety checks that Japanese regulators performed for years, which he said were still being carried out in some cases using “technology three decades old.” He said that regulators had been too cozy with the industry. Mr. Madarame also criticized Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the Fukushima plant, for saying that it could not possibly have prepared for a tsunami as strong as the one last March, which killed 20,000 people along Japan’s northeast coast.