Scathing parliamentary report accompanies restart of Japanese reactor

Publish date: July 5, 2012

Written by: Charles Digges

Japan ended two months without nuclear power on Thursday when the No 3 unit at Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi plant became the first reactor to resume supplying electricity to the grid since a nationwide safety shutdown after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster last year.

The start-up comes as two critical reports about the Fukushima disaster have been published, both of which point to ongoing – and far more serious dangers – at the stricken plant, and one of which, authored by Japan’s independent parliamentary commission to investigate the Fukushima accident, cites human error and botched work by Japanese nuclear regulators as a pervasive contributor to the cataclysm.

“A new nuclear regulatory system needs to be established in Japan before any reactors are restarted,” said Nils Bøhmner, Bellona’s nuclear physicist and general manager.

“As made clear by the released reports, information withholding, failed communications and faulty reports on the state of Japan’s reactors were as much a part of the disaster as other factors,” he said. 

The parliamentary commission’s report (download at lower right) could not have agreed more, saying, “Japan’s regulators need to shed the insular attitude of ignoring international safety standards and transform themselves into a globally trusted entity.”

The disaster “could and should have been foreseen and prevented” and its effects “mitigated by a more effective human response,” said the parliamentary report.

The last of Japan’s 50 reactors was idled in early May, leaving the country without nuclear power for the first time since 1970.

The federal government and KEPCO, which operates the Ohi plant in western Japan say the reactor has passed stringent safety checks and argue its output is needed to ward off blackouts as Japan enters its high-demand summer months, as well as to reduce the country’s imports of liquefied natural gas and fossil fuel use.

“We have finally taken this first step,” Hideki Toyomatsu, vice president of KEPCO, told Reuters. “But it is just a first step.”

But KEPCO is hoping to restart another reactor in Ohi soon – and that could pave the way for other plants around the country, Japanese media report, bearing witness to the sway the powerful nuclear lobby still holds over the country.

In the meantime, officials have called on the nation to conserve energy.

Reports bad timing for nuclear PR mission

Ohi’s reactor No 3 began power generating power today just ahead of the release of the final report by an independent parliamentary investigative commission examining the ongoing crisis that the March 11, 2011 tsunami and earthquake sparked in Fukushima.  

The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered three meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and massive radiation leaks, after the tsunami and 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the plant, killing all cooling to reactors. Massive amounts of radiation were leaked in to the atmosphere and Pacific Ocean, and caused food contamination.

The disaster was assigned a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) making it the world’s only parallel to Chernobyl.

Another report released earlier this week by the Hopochi CH think tank in Switzerland has postulated that further destruction to a spent nuclear fuel storage pond sitting atop Fukushima Daiichi’s hydrogen blast-ravaged and titling reactor No 4 building could have three to 10 times the global consequences than did the initial radiation released after the tsunami and quake.

Public opposition to the restarts

The resumption of operations in Ohi has been hotly contested in Japan, and dovetailing with the release of the parliamentary commission’s final report, has raised questions over how seriously the government is trying to learn from the Fukushima crisis.

Huge demonstrations against the restart encompassing tens of thousands of people have been held each week outside of the prime minister’s office, reflecting deep grassroots opposition. According to various Japanese media, some 70 percent of the population wants to ditch nuclear power.

Before the crisis, Japan got one-third of its electricity from nuclear plants – second only to France and the US.

Experts and activists have criticized Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government, saying it is putting business ahead of safety by going forward with the resumption before studying the findings and recommendations in the report.

“This shows how desperate the situation in Japan is,” Bellona’s Bøhmer said. “With this move the government is clearly ignoring public opinion against it – they are compromising the population’s safety for economic reasons.”

The parliamentary report puts blame on human error and collusion between government and regulators

The 10-member panel, appointed by parliament in December, has interviewed in over 900 hours of testimony hundreds of plant workers, company and government officials, including then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The commission’s report, released today in Tokyo, states the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe was the result a bitter lesson in human error thanks to regulators who failed to provide adequate prevention and a government lacking commitment to protect the public.

“Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster,” the panel’s chairman, Tokyo University professor emeritus Kiyoshi Kurokawa, wrote in the report. “It was a profoundly manmade disaster ­– that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

After six months of investigation, the panel concluded that the disaster “was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco” founded in the failure of regulatory systems.

It said that the situation at the plant worsened in the aftermath of the earthquake because government agencies “did not function correctly”, with key roles left ambiguous

The report also emphasized that the earthquake caused damage to Fukushima Daiichi’s reactor No 1 and critical safety equipment – a major departure from other reports by the government and plant owner Tokyo Electric Co (TEPCO), which concluded the reactors withstood the earthquake only to be disabled when the ensuing 13-meter tsunami hit the plant.

The No 1 reactor had two weeks prior to the dual natural disasters been granted a 10-year operational extension, despite warnings from regulators that its back up diesel and battery coolant power systems showed signs of saltwater corrosion. This reactor was the first of to experience a full core meltdown after the tsunami.

Other groups, including a private probe panel, have detailed a serious lack of communication between the government and the Fukushima operator, TEPCO and a failure by both to provide the public with important information on radiation leaks.

The commission’s report also said the Fukushima situation was worsened by government mismanagement, while adding that TEPCO can’t use the government as a scapegoat as its own information disclosure through the disaster was lacking.

A new nuclear watchdog will be set up in Japan, perhaps as early as September, to replace the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission, two regulatory bodies criticized for their poor handling of the Fukushima disaster, the newswire said.

Radiation fallout from the reactors forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people and left land in the area uninhabitable for decades.