Culture of collusion
Long before the tsunami, protection of interests undermined plant safety
BY NORIMITSU ONISHI AND KEN BELSON
The International Herald Tribune
April 27, 2011
Given the fierce insularity of the Japanese nuclear industry, it was perhaps fitting that an outsider exposed the most serious safety cover-up in the history of Japanese nuclear power. It took place at Fukushima Daiichi, the plant that Japan has been struggling to get under control since the tsunami last month.
In 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American nuclear inspector who had done work for General Electric at Daiichi, told the main Japanese nuclear regulator about a cracked steam dryer that he believed was being covered up. If exposed, the revelations could have forced the operator, Tokyo Electric Power, to do what utilities least want to do: undertake costly repairs.
What happened next was an example, critics have since said, of the collusive ties that bind the nation's nuclear power companies, regulators and politicians.
Despite a new law shielding whistle-blowers, the regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, divulged Mr. Sugaoka's identity to Tokyo Electric, effectively blackballing him from the industry. Instead of immediately deploying its own investigators to Daiichi, the agency instructed the company to inspect its own reactors. Regulators allowed the company to keep operating its reactors for the next two years even though, as an investigation ultimately revealed, its executives had actually covered up other, far more serious problems, including cracks in the shrouds that cover reactor cores.
Investigators may take months or years to decide to what extent safety problems or weak regulation contributed to the disaster at Daiichi, the worst of its kind since Chernobyl. But as troubles at the plant and fears over radiation continue to rattle the nation, the Japanese are increasingly raising the possibility that a culture of complicity made the plant especially vulnerable to the natural disaster that struck the country on March 11.
Already, many Japanese and Western experts argue that inconsistent, nonexistent or unenforced regulations played a role in the accident - especially the low sea walls that failed to protect the plant against the tsunami and the decision to place backup diesel generators for powering the reactors' cooling system at ground level, which made them highly vulnerable to flooding.
A 10-year extension for the oldest of Daiichi's reactors suggests that the regulatory system was allowed to remain lax by politicians, bureaucrats and industry executives single-mindedly focused on expanding nuclear power. Regulators approved the extension beyond the reactor's 40-year statutory limit just weeks before the tsunami despite warnings about its safety and subsequent admissions by Tokyo Electric that it had failed to carry out proper inspections of critical equipment.
The mild punishment meted out for past safety infractions has reinforced the belief that nuclear power's main players are more interested in protecting their interests than improving safety. ...
...In Japan, the opaque network of connections between the nuclear industry and government officials is now popularly referred to as ''the nuclear power village'' - an expression connoting the collusive interests that underlie the nuclear establishment's push to expand the industry, despite the discovery of active fault lines under plants, new projections about the size of tsunamis and a long history of cover-ups of safety problems.
As in any Japanese village, the likeminded - nuclear industry officials, bureaucrats, politicians and scientists - have prospered by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions and political, financial and regulatory support. The few who are openly skeptical of nuclear power's safety become village outcasts, losing out on promotions and backing.
Until recently, it had been considered political suicide to even discuss the need to reform an industry that appeared less concerned with safety than maximizing profits, said Kusuo Oshima, one of the few lawmakers in the governing Democratic Party who have long been critical of the nuclear industry.
''Everyone considered that a taboo, so nobody wanted to touch it,'' said Mr. Oshima, adding that he could speak freely because he received financial backing from Rissho Kosei-Kai, one of Japan's largest lay Buddhist movements, not from a nuclear-affiliated group.
''It's all about money,'' he added.