ANALYSIS: Concerned about Fukushima compensation, TEPCO passes the buck

June 21, 2012


Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted it wasn’t prepared for the size of the tsunami last year. But it blamed the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency for failing to give instructions to reinforce the now-crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

TEPCO also acknowledged problems in releasing information to the public about the nuclear accident. But it said the delay was the fault of the prime minister’s office and its desire to control information.

In addition, the utility confirmed there was confusion at the Fukushima nuclear plant in the early stages of the crisis. But TEPCO said the chaos was largely the result of interference from central government officials.

It should come as no surprise that TEPCO’s final report, released on June 20, shows almost no sense of social responsibility for the nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant.

The report was compiled by the utility’s Fukushima Nuclear Accidents Investigation Committee, which interviewed about 600 employees, including executives and those at the plant site. The opinions of some outsiders were considered in the process of writing the report.

Any admission of responsibility for the accident would have provided momentum for lawsuits that are piling up against TEPCO, as well as compensation claims from people who were forced to evacuate or who lost their livelihood because of the accident.

TEPCO admissions could also make it more difficult for the central government to provide support to keep the utility afloat.

So instead, the utility repeated its past argument that the accident was caused by a tsunami that was much larger than any prior assumptions.

"While in hindsight we have to admit to laxness in assumptions made about the tsunami, the fundamental cause of the accident was insufficient preparations for tsunami," the report said.

The report said TEPCO worked with the central government on anti-disaster measures, such as installing several emergency cooling units on the assumption that an equipment malfunction would occur. It also stated that visual checks of equipment led to the conclusion that the earthquake did not damage major equipment to the extent of affecting its functions.

In tsunami assumptions made before the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, TEPCO in 2002 said the maximum height of a possible tsunami would be 5.7 meters. Although it made a revised calculation in 2008 that led to the possibility of a 15.7-meter tsunami hitting the Fukushima plant, TEPCO did not actually change its initial assumption.

The report said that four days before the quake and tsunami, TEPCO officials explained the new calculation to NISA officials, but the agency did not give instructions to immediately implement new measures.

Regarding tsunami predictions and countermeasures, the report stated, "It is desirable to have evaluations conducted based on a unified standard established by an agency of the central government."

One lesson from the nuclear accident is the inadequacy of measures to deal with a severe accident that goes beyond anyone's imagination.

For example, the hydrogen explosion at the No. 1 reactor created huge difficulties in restoring power to the cooling system.

The report stated that the utility was unaware of the possibility that hydrogen could leak in a severe accident. But it provided no explanation for the company’s misjudgment.

Other investigations into the Fukushima accident have painted TEPCO in a negative light. The utility’s report addressed these criticisms.

For example, the interim report by the central government's Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations pointed to the possibility that workers at the No. 1 reactor may have lacked sufficient understanding about the functioning of isolation condensers, which may have led to a delay in starting alternative cooling measures.

TEPCO’s report said operations were conducted without problem from the time of the quake to the tsunami. Referring to the education and training of plant workers, the report stated, "Operations can be said to have been conducted based on utilization of obtained knowledge and sufficient understanding of the functioning" of the equipment.

In fact, the report implied that central government officials were the ones who added to the confusion, citing the government’s orders to pump seawater into the reactor cores and to conduct venting to lower core pressure.

"Specific requests that were detached from the actual situation at the plant were made directly and indirectly from high-ranking central government officials at the prime minister's office," the report said, adding that such instructions led to confusion in the chain of command.

“It only placed the plant manager in a difficult position and did not improve the result of trying to settle the situation," the report said.

The report also rejected suggestions by government officials that TEPCO had planned to evacuate all workers from the Fukushima plant.

"While consideration was given to temporarily evacuating those workers who were not directly involved, there was no intention to evacuate all workers," it said.

The report pointed to the need to withdraw clerical workers not directly involved in controlling the accident, noting that central government inspectors had left the site and then plant manager Masao Yoshida had said he thought he was about to die because of the accident.

TEPCO’s report even referred to a company manual on how to deal with accidents, which stated that those not dealing with the emergency were to be pulled out.

The report pointed to the possibility of a misunderstanding that led central government officials to believe that the utility wanted to evacuate all workers.

The report stated, "There is a possibility (a misunderstanding arose) due to insufficient communications."

However, the report did not state the number of workers who would have been asked to stay on at the plant. And TEPCO was also not upfront about providing all the information it possessed.

Teleconferences held between TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo and the Fukushima plant are considered essential in uncovering the facts about the response to the accident, including whether TEPCO executives planned to withdraw all the workers from the plant.

However, recordings of the teleconferences have not been released.

"It is internal information, and the privacy of those who are in the video could be violated," a TEPCO official said.

As for the delays in providing information to the public following the disaster, TEPCO blamed the need to obtain central government approval.

The report said such approval was sought after Masataka Shimizu, the TEPCO president at the time, was given a strong warning by the prime minister's office after TV broadcasts of the explosion at the No. 1 reactor building came before the prime minister's office learned of the development.

As work continues to end the crisis at the nuclear plant, TEPCO needs to keep its responsibility ambiguous because of a new compensation framework.

Under a 1961 law, a power plant operator bears primary responsibility regardless of whether negligence was involved. However, that law never assumed that an accident of the scale that hit the Fukushima plant, capable of pushing the utility to bankruptcy, would occur.

For that reason, the law to establish the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund that was passed last August created a framework for central government support even through primary responsibility remained with the utility.

In its rebuilding plan, TEPCO stated that it would ask the central government for additional support if the need arose. Behind the argument was an unspoken agreement, in the words of a TEPCO executive, that responsibility for the accident rests not only with TEPCO, but the central government as well.

Admitting to responsibility would also place TEPCO at a disadvantage in any lawsuit filed by victims or shareholders seeking to hold TEPCO executives, both past and present, accountable for the accident.

"We conducted the investigation within the limits possible at the present time,” TEPCO Executive Vice President Masao Yamazaki, who served as chairman of the investigation committee, said. “I cannot respond to questions about whether the accident was a natural one or man-made."

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TEPCO Executive Vice President Masao Yamazaki, center, at a June 20 news conference with other company officials (Naoko Kawamura)

TEPCO Executive Vice President Masao Yamazaki, center, at a June 20 news conference with other company officials (Naoko Kawamura)

  • TEPCO Executive Vice President Masao Yamazaki, center, at a June 20 news conference with other company officials (Naoko Kawamura)

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