POINT OF VIEW/ Hirohiko Izumida: Independent organization needed to supervise nuclear safety

March 25, 2011

Special to The Asahi Shimbun

After the problems emerged at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., we installed monitoring posts to measure radiation levels in various parts of Niigata Prefecture and have periodically released the data. This accident is an ongoing threat to us.

The most troubling thing at first was the absence of any data from the monitoring posts in Fukushima Prefecture. When problems arise at a nuclear power plant, the first thing we want is information, but all we heard was, "There is a discrepancy in the data" and "The decision on whether to release information will be made by the central government's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters.

No data emerged from TEPCO, either. We were forced to seek out measures while being completely blindfolded. To be honest, I was afraid. It is still not too late, so I hope they will retroactively release the data.

Quick release of information

I became Niigata governor immediately after the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake that struck in October 2004. My experience from that time made me realize the importance of releasing information expediently after a natural disaster.

We did not know what was happening at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, located in Niigata Prefecture, because TEPCO did not release information quickly. All I could do was to repeatedly ask for the release of information as soon as possible.

During the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake of July 2007, a fire broke out at an electric transformer at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, and a small amount of radioactive materials was released. The earthquake cut off a hotline that had been set up between the nuclear power plant and the Niigata prefectural government office. We made improvements so that such a situation never recurred.

I was acutely aware that there was a need to create a system that would automatically release information about nuclear power plants.

After consulting with the prefectural assembly, we created the post of nuclear safety publicity officer in 2008 to immediately confirm what was happening at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant after a natural disaster, to quickly release information and explain the situation based on confirmed facts.

About five minutes after the earthquake struck on March 11, we received information from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant that there were no problems and that the plant was operating normally. We were able to release that information immediately. I believe appropriate and transparent information was released quickly.

In comparison, no information came out from those working on-site at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Furthermore, separate news conferences were held at the Prime Minister's Official Residence, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and TEPCO.

Why did the local office in Fukushima not release the information? All the Prime Minister's Official Residence should do is to make a decision on how to respond and what policy to take. I wonder if there really is a need for the chief Cabinet secretary to explain each and every detail.

If like in Niigata, a structure was set up to release raw information quickly, there would be no room for political interference. Such structures should be set up throughout Japan.

I believe the structure should be changed to first release information and then think about measures that have to be taken.

To respond to the risks at nuclear power plants, we have asked officials at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to always improve the situation after close calls and potential danger, even if no accident actually occurred.

When the plant was damaged during the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake, a fire broke out with the burning of an electric transformer. While it did not evolve into a major disaster because an emergency power source was available, one false step might have led to a similar accident that occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in which a cut-off in the supply of electricity led to an inability to cool the reactor core.

To prevent that from happening, there will be a need to take safety measures one step further. I believe an important point in safe operations for a nuclear power plant is whether it is possible to continually make improvements.

One lesson we have to learn from the latest accident is the need to create an evacuation plan for a wide region.

An accident in which the building housing a reactor is damaged and radioactive materials are released goes beyond what any individual prefecture can handle. But there is currently no structure for an evacuation that extends beyond the jurisdiction of a single prefecture.

Response to wide-area disaster

Many residents of Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures have been evacuated to Niigata Prefecture. However, because Niigata Prefecture is not a local government that has been directly hit by the natural disaster, the laws for providing assistance during natural disasters and helping disaster victims rebuild the lives are difficult to apply.

If we built temporary housing for the evacuees, would we be able to ask the central government to foot the bill? If a special measures law is to be created, I hope consideration will be given to such factors.

When accepting the evacuees, we conduct checks to see if they are contaminated with radioactive materials and implement a screening process to clean such materials if the need arises. In the initial stages, the work was handled mainly by doctors and other medical workers at public health centers, but in cases like Niigata, where both the prefectural government as well as Niigata municipal govenment have their separate public health center systems, close cooperation between the two governments is indispensable for dealing with the constantly changing circumstances.

To deal with a disaster that affects a wide region, such as a nuclear plant accident, there is a need to go beyond thinking as a single prefecture or municipality and change the overall framework that is in place.

There will naturally arise a need to review how the government handles nuclear safety.

In the latest incident, the responses were always one step behind. There may be a problem with having the NISA under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. I used to work at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the predecessor to METI. I know NISA is only one organ under METI, and its staff members come and go with periodic personnel transfers.

One has to ask what perspective was used in making decisions: protecting the safety of residents or protecting the management of an electric power company? If the decision had been made earlier to pump in seawater, the leaking of radioactive materials could have been reduced.

Moreover, I wonder if the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, which should play a lead role in dealing with a nuclear plant accident, functioned effectively in the latest case.

There will be a need to examine these issues.

I believe that in the future, Japan will have to create an independent organization that would have all authority and responsibility for nuclear safety and have the jurisdiction to deal with any incident completely through its own judgment.

I am afraid that we will only repeat the same mistakes in the future unless a structure is created that clearly establishes where responsibility lies and allows for a flexible response in the event of a disaster.

(This article was compiled from an interview by Satoshi Ozawa.)

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Hirohiko Izumida, who joined the former Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1987, became governor of Niigata Prefecture at the age of 42 in October 2004.

Special to The Asahi Shimbun
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Hirohiko Izumida (Photo by So Ouchi)

Hirohiko Izumida (Photo by So Ouchi)

  • Hirohiko Izumida (Photo by So Ouchi)

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