FUKUSHIMA LESSONS: Government admits failures in Fukushima crisis

June 08, 2011

The Japanese government's report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant catalogues multiple failures at all levels of Japan's nuclear industry, bureaucracy and government.

The report, submitted June 7, lists 28 challenges thrown up by the disaster at the Fukushima plant. Japan's nuclear establishment was found wanting in the facilities and equipment it had in place at the stricken plant, in its systems for regulating the nuclear industry and handling a nuclear accident, and in its actual response to the nuclear crisis triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

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Power sources, equipment inadequate

The report stresses that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) had not properly prepared for the disaster. Problems went further than a loss of power in the plant following the quake and tsunami. There were also flaws in the reactors themselves and problems with peripheral equipment.

Fundamentally, the report concludes, TEPCO had not prepared sufficiently for the scale of the tsunami seen on March 11 and its assessment of the likelihood of waves on that scale was incorrect.

The report says investigations will continue to look into whether the earthquake itself, rather than the tsunami it triggered, caused damage to the reactors. So far, no critical damage from the quake has been confirmed, but the investigation is in its early stages.

It is already clear that waterproofing of buildings and equipment at nuclear plants will have to be improved, the authors say.

The operators of the Fukushima plant had not envisaged that the power vital to shutting down a reactor safely could be knocked out by a natural disaster like a tsunami. In the future, multiple power sources, including generators and mobile power units, will have to be available, the report says.

The plant operator will also have to ensure they have access to enough water to cool reactors immediately after an accident.

The report details a series of mistakes by the government and TEPCO in their handling of the developing crisis at Fukushima.

The team responding to the disaster did not anticipate the hydrogen explosions that ripped apart reactor buildings because they focused their response single-mindedly on preventing radioactive substances escaping outside the compound.

The hydrogen explosions occurred because of a lack of equipment at the plant to reduce the concentration of flammable gases in the reactor building and to release hydrogen gas.

There were also problems with the valves for lowering pressure inside the reactors, which are vital to preventing ruptures in the reactors' pressure and containment vessels. Workers took too long to open the valves and some reactors shared outlet pipes, further complicating the process and leading to the escalation of the disaster.

Dosimeters provided to individual workers to help protect themselves from excessive radiation exposure broke because they were submerged in the tsunami, increasing risks for the response teams.

There were other fundamental problems with the layout and design of the plant, according to the report.

The location of fuel storage pools on the upper floors of the reactor buildings complicated the response to the accident, making it harder to inject water into the pools. The arrangement of key buildings also helped the spread of contamination, with radioactive water spilling into the turbine buildings from the reactor buildings.

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Unclear where responsibility lies

The report also says the existing regulatory system for the nuclear industry and disaster response plans and structures prevented a swift, concerted response to the situation at Fukushima and proper preparation for a disaster.

Several government ministries and agencies were involved in overseeing the nuclear industry and their roles and responsibilities were not clearly separated, leading to chaos in the days after the accident, the report says.

The current regulatory setup, in particular, is difficult to follow. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which has a history of promoting nuclear power. However, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, a regulatory organization overseeing NISA, is established in the Cabinet Office. The education ministry is in charge of monitoring radioactivity in the air and sea, giving it a vital role in determining the extent of leaks and issuing evacuation advisories.

The report recommends making NISA independent from METI, in line with the recommendations of an IAEA inspection team that called for greater independence for the regulators of the industry and clearer definition of the roles of the government officials overseeing nuclear power.

The government will also review disaster prevention laws, nuclear safety standards, its general assessment of the safety of nuclear power and the way it handles older nuclear reactors.

Laws requiring the installation of cutting-edge technologies to improve the safety of existing plants in the light of the Fukushima crisis are called for, and the authors envisage a program to build a team of professionals qualified to react to any future disaster, including crisis management experts and specialists in treating radiation-related illnesses.

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Lack of explanation to residents

The report also admits failures in communications with the communities near the plant and with foreign nations offering assistance.

Telephone and other communication networks were hit by the disaster, preventing some local governments from issuing timely evacuation orders.

The report says the government will draw up a plan to more effectively utilize data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) to better inform evacuation decisions. The government has been criticized for its slowness in releasing such information.

The authors also note that the government failed to clearly set out how the crisis was developing to the public and how it might develop, leading to increased public concern. The report calls for greater clarity in public announcements, setting out in easy to understand ways the real dangers to people's health from radiation.

Finally, the report admits failings in the government's handling of relationships with the international community. It says the government did not move swiftly to accept offers of assistance from foreign countries and angered the governments of South Korea and Russia by failing to notify them in advance of discharges of low-level radioactive water from the Fukushima plant into the sea in early April.

The Japanese government plans to provide information through an international framework in the future, according to the authors.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hidenori Tsuboya and Jin Nishikawa.)

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  • Goshi Hosono, adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident, talks to journalists about a government report on the accident submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency on June 7. (Satoru Iizuka)

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