FINAL REPORT (2) : Concern for people's lives was not a priority

July 06, 2012

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Concern for people's lives seemed to be the last thing on the minds of officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co. or the central government as they scrambled to contain the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture last year.

This is one of the grim assessments that emerge from the final report issued July 5 by a Diet task force that investigated the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission suggested that health and safety concerns simply were not a priority.

The commission was especially critical of the lack of safety measures taken in the past as well as the initial response to the disaster triggered by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

It concluded that plant operator TEPCO and the central government showed an utter lack of responsibility in doing everything possible to protect the lives of those most affected.

Delay in implementing measures proved to be costly

The final report pointed to problems that arose after TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) failed to implement safety measures even though they knew the plant was dangerously vulnerable to a major earthquake and tsunami crashing into the coast.

"The accident cannot be said to have been totally unexpected and there is no way that responsibility can be avoided," the report stated.

Commission member Katsuhiko Ishibashi, professor emeritus of seismology at Kobe University, had long warned that Japan could face a nuclear catastrophe triggered by a natural disaster.

He said the accident was not simply due to tsunami that inundated the plant 40 minutes after the earthquake struck.

"What needs to be done now is to hastily evaluate the situation at other nuclear plants so that nothing like this happens again," he said.

The final report pointed to delays in responding to new anti-quake guidelines for nuclear plants in 2006.

TEPCO estimated it would cost 80 billion yen ($1 billion) to construct sea barriers and other reinforcements to safeguard the plant following revised calculations about the threat to the facility from earthquakes and tsunami.

But in the end, only limited steps were taken.

The utility initially said it would detail the steps it was taking in a report to be released in June 2009, but an embarrassing lack of visible progress prompted TEPCO to decide privately it would delay doing so until January 2016.

The company did not release a schedule of the work to be done because it was unable to demonstrate that sufficient steps had been taken.

NISA officials also did nothing, having concluded that TEPCO was in a better position to judge what important work needed to be done and when.

The final report also scoffed at TEPCO's argument that the tsunami was so off the charts there was no way it could anticipate a disaster of that magnitude.

In fact, at an April 2007 meeting between NISA and electric power companies, discussion centered on the possibility of tsunami exceeding all expectations striking coastal power plants. Concern was voiced about damage to reactor cores if that happened.

Those same concerns were shared at a similar meeting the year before between NISA and the utilities, while memories of the late 2004 tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean were still fresh.

The Diet commission's report said the exchanges between NISA and electric power companies seemingly went nowhere. It also noted that the long delays in implementing safety steps created a host of problems.

The commission bluntly stated that a blatant disregard for international standards was the reason behind TEPCO's inability to take appropriate safety steps.

"Nothing was done to prepare for a possible accident scenario that could lead to a devastating result," the report added.

Plant operators in Western nations typically consider internal factors, such as equipment malfunctioning, as well as external factors like damage from quakes and floods, and artificial factors, such as acts of terrorism.

However, in Japan, the only external factor considered was the threat from earthquakes.

The final report said inadequate measures were taken to deal with external and artificial factors. It noted that government regulations ensure that measures are taken in the West, but in Japan those decisions are left to the discretion of electric power companies.

Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, told the Diet commission: "It was a terrible mistake to not have thought about the possibility of a severe accident. Japan is nowhere close to approaching international safety standards. In a sense, safety evaluations are being conducted based on technology from 30 years ago."

Report points to possible quake damage at Fukushima plant

Until now, TEPCO had insisted that the magnitude-9.0 quake caused no damage to the equipment at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. However, the Diet commission's final report said it was likely that equipment used to cool the reactors may have been damaged by the quake.

TEPCO has argued that the core meltdowns at the No. 1 to No. 3 reactors were caused by a failure to cool the reactor cores after emergency power sources were wiped out by the tsunami.

There is a major flaw in this assertion as the time TEPCO cited in explaining when the tsunami struck is when the waves were still 1.5 kilometers from the Fukushima coast.

The Diet commission, citing the lag between the earthquake and tsunami hitting, speculated that some of the emergency generators stopped operating even before the waves hit.

At the No. 1 reactor, which was the first to go into core meltdown, TEPCO insisted that the isolation condenser (IC) was not damaged by the quake.

It explained that the reactor pressure did not drop rapidly immediately after the quake struck.

However, the Diet commission's final report said the IC piping very likely may have been ruptured by the quake. It noted that core pressure will not drop in such cases and dismissed TEPCO's assertion as unreasonable.

Plant workers also started and stopped IC operations after the quake hit and before the tsunami struck.

If the IC had been operated continuously to cool the reactor core quickly, the nuclear disaster probably would not have raged out of control so quickly.

Investigation committees established by the central government and TEPCO both concluded that plant workers were following operation manuals in handling the IC.

However, the Diet commission rejected that assessment. It surmised that workers stopped the IC because of concerns that coolant water was leaking from the IC piping.

The report also said the main valve to release steam from the No. 1 reactor core to reduce pressure may not have been working. None of the plant workers questioned said they heard the sound of the valve operating.

The report also pointed to a lack of training in venting to reduce pressure in the containment vessel and the difficulty in working without an adequate blueprint as key reasons for a hydrogen explosion.

TEPCO concluded that no quake damage had occurred to plant equipment even though it was not in a position to confirm the extent of damage because of high radiation levels within the plant.

"TEPCO management was controlled by a thinking of wanting to minimize effects on other nuclear plants," the report said.

However, because Diet commission members also were unable to confirm the extent of damage, the findings remain nothing more than speculation.

Government left evacuation decision up to local residents

The Diet commission also was critical of how and when the central government issued evacuation orders to local residents.

For example, the central government instructed residents living in a radius of 20 to 30 kilometers from the Fukushima plant to remain indoors for a 10-day period.

It then changed its instructions and left the decision on whether to evacuate up to residents.

"Because it was left up to residents (whether to evacuate), we must conclude that (the central government) abandoned its responsibility (to protect) the lives of the public."

The report was scathing in its criticism of inadequate disaster management plans drawn up by the Fukushima prefectural government and medical institutions.

It noted that at least 60 people who were in hospitals or care facilities for senior citizens within a 20-km radius of the Fukushima No. 1 plant had died by the end of March 2011 after their health deteriorated due to evacuation.

The commission also touched on the failure of some local governments to issue instructions to local residents to take iodine tablets to counter radiation exposure.

It was also critical of an assessment by the central government and Fukushima prefectural government that no obvious health risks had been detected in people exposed to radiation levels of 100 millisieverts or less.

The central government is now reviewing its standard for maximum exposure in evacuation zones to an annual level of 20 millisieverts.

The report prodded the central and local governments to address health issues on grounds that exposure of even 100 millisieverts or less could lead to problems.

It said the 20-millisievert standard for reviewing evacuation zones was too high, especially when considering the health of children and pregnant women.

The commission also castigated the central and Fukushima prefectural governments for not taking steps to assess health problems caused by internal radiation exposure.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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The Diet investigation panel's report and related materials that were submitted to Kenji Hirata, the Upper House speaker, on July 5. The report contains 641 pages. (Satoru Semba)

The Diet investigation panel's report and related materials that were submitted to Kenji Hirata, the Upper House speaker, on July 5. The report contains 641 pages. (Satoru Semba)

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  • The Diet investigation panel's report and related materials that were submitted to Kenji Hirata, the Upper House speaker, on July 5. The report contains 641 pages. (Satoru Semba)
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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