Fukushima Report Conclusion: Man made Disaster

Guest Blog | July 24, 2012 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Earlier this month, the Japanese Independent Investigation Commission released its report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, concluding that collusion between regulators and the industry, including the utility TEPCO, was a primary factor in creating and exacerbating this ongoing crisis. From construction to emergency response, the physical structure of the plant was not strong enough to withstand the disaster and the industry was not prepared to respond to it, which left the public unprotected and unprepared. This report should serve as a wake-up call for the nuclear industry, its proponents and regulators here in the U.S. Just over a year ago, an investigative report by the Associated Press unearthed similar “cozy” relationships between regulators and the nuclear industry here.

Gregory Jaczko, exiting U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman, responded to the report by saying that the events that unfolded at Fukushima did not “technically” violate any United States regulations. But according to a recent New York Times blog, Jaczko also said “that Fukushima showed that existing American regulations allowed the government and industry to ‘fool ourselves’ into thinking that goals are adequately met.”

Some of the key findings of the report:

  • “The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘man made.’”
  • “The Commission concludes that there were organizational problems within TEPCO. Had there been a higher level of knowledge, training, and equipment inspection related to severe accidents, and had there been specific instructions given to the on-site workers concerning the state of emergency within the necessary time frame, a more effective accident response would have been possible.”
  • “The Commission concludes that the residents’ confusion over the evacuation stemmed from the regulators’ negligence and failure over the years to implement adequate measures against a nuclear disaster, as well as a lack of action by previous governments and regulators focused on crisis management.”
  • “The Commission recognizes that the residents in the affected area are still struggling from the effects of the accident. They continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment. There is no foreseeable end to the decontamination and restoration activities that are essential for rebuilding communities. The Commission concludes that the government and the regulators are not fully committed to protecting public health and safety; that they have not acted to protect the health of the residents and to restore their welfare.”
  • “Approximately 150,000 people were evacuated in response to the accident. An estimated 167 workers were exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation while dealing with the accident. It is estimated that as much as 1,800 square kilometers of land in Fukushima Prefecture has now been contaminated by a cumulative radiation dose of 5 millisieverts or higher per year.”
  • “The Commission has concluded that the safety of nuclear energy in Japan and the public cannot be assured unless the regulators go through an essential transformation process. The entire organization needs to be transformed, not as a formality but in a substantial way. Japan’s regulators need to shed the insular attitude of ignoring international safety standards and transform themselves into a globally trusted entity.”

Despite being completely free of nuclear power generation for two months, one reactor at the Oi plant was restarted at the beginning of June. The Japanese people have been protesting and demonstrating for over a year now, taking to the streets, gathering at the Prime Minister’s home and blockading the road to the Oi plant. Even as temperatures soar to 98 degrees F this week, the protests are showing no signs of slowing down, with over 150,000 people gathering in Tokyo to protest restarting the reactors. People have every right to take action, especially as the startling news spreads that abnormal growths have been found in the thyroids of 36% of the thousands of Fukushima children that have been tested.

We have to agree with one protester who said, “Things can never change if we blame culture. We need to get to the bottom of this.” If we place too much emphasis on how people could have prevented this disaster, we are buying into the illusion that mankind can control the mighty atom and plan for and endure severe natural events. I think it is time that we recognize that there are certain forces beyond human control that cannot be reduced to equations and risk assessments. Since Fukushima, most of what we have heard here in the U.S. from nuclear utilities, their supporters and many regulators is along the lines of “This can’t happen here. We don’t have tsunamis or earthquakes at that same scale. We have different reactor designs. Flooding like that wouldn’t happen.” Well, man-made mistakes and errors can and do happen…here, there and everywhere.

A few additional resources:

–SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices program director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.

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