Fukushima accident: a man made disaster; it has lessons for everyone

Contrary to popular belief that the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was caused by natural causes, the  Independent  commission set up by the Japanese Parliament concluded that it was “the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Company(TEPCO), and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents”.

According to the commission, the accident was  “a profoundly man-made disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response”. The 88 page summary was published on July 5th.

The report is a wakeup call for all in nuclear business. Complacency by any stake holder anywhere in the world is unacceptable. Regulatory agency must be uncompromising on  safety shortfalls. It must be transparent and proactive and  must revisit recurring and pending issues, if any, and resolve them promptly. Conflict of interest must not influence its decision making. Though the report applies only to Japan, everyone will review it critically.

While it is scientifically accurate to claim that such a disaster will not occur in Indian nuclear  power plants as it fulfills all geotechnical requirements, everyone must be vigilant against complacency and shortfalls in safety culture, attributes difficult to quantify

” How could such an accident occur in Japan, a nation that takes such great pride in its global reputation for excellence in engineering and technology?”, the commission voiced the cliché which was in the minds of every one.

The  report listed many errors and willful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11.

“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. 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.”, the commission indicted NISA, the regulator and the operator unequivocally.

“For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey – especially to a global audience – is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster.” Mr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Chairman of the Commission admitted  in a forthright foreword to the report.

” What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity” he added candidly.

“Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same”, he said without finger pointing.

The commission revealed that it was forced to exercise its  legislative right to demand such information from NISA to expose the collusion between the NISA and TEPCO after NISA failed to respond to several requests.

The Commission observed that  the regulators also had a negative attitude towards importing new advances in knowledge and technology from overseas. If NISA had passed on to TEPCO, measures that were included in a relevant 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.

The commission identified issues related to operational problems, emergency response, evacuation and continuing public health and welfare .

The report  found that the regulators did not monitor or supervise nuclear safety. Their  lack of expertise resulted in “regulatory capture,” and the postponement of the implementation of relevant regulations. They avoided their direct responsibilities by letting operators apply regulations on a voluntary basis.

“Replacing people or changing the names of institutions will not solve the problems.

Unless these root causes are resolved, preventive measures against future similar accidents

will never be complete”, the report cautioned.

The Commission made sweeping recommendations:  monitoring of the regulatory body by the Parliament (DIET); reforming the crisis management system; monitoring of operators; ensuring Government responsibility for public health and welfare; specifying criteria for the new regulatory body; reforming laws related to nuclear energy and developing a system of independent investigation commissions.

 

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About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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