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Japanese Panel Finds Fukushima Accident was “Manmade” and “Preventable”

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, shown less than two months after an earthquake and tsunami inflicted severe damage on the site. The disaster was the result of “a multitude of errors and willful negligence” and “should have been foreseen and prevented,” a 10-member investigative commission asserted on Thursday (AP Photo/Japanese Defense Ministry). Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, shown less than two months after an earthquake and tsunami inflicted severe damage on the site. The disaster was the result of “a multitude of errors and willful negligence” and “should have been foreseen and prevented,” a 10-member investigative commission asserted on Thursday (AP Photo/Japanese Defense Ministry).

WASHINGTON -- A Japanese legislative inquiry on Thursday found that last year’s disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “manmade” and could have been prevented (see GSN, June 26).

A 641-page report by the independent 10-member panel concluded that the facility might have been damaged by the first earthquake on March 11, 2011, even prior to being hit by a tsunami roughly 30 minutes later.

The twin calamities led to meltdowns at three of the Daiichi facility’s six reactors.

It could take several years before it is known whether the earthquake alone set off overheating in at least one of the damaged reactors, the report said. If so, that could have major implications for the rest of Japan’s atomic plants, given that the nation is frequently affected by earthquakes.

Steps could have been taken to anticipate earthquake and tsunami effects, but “a multitude of errors and willful negligence … left the Fukushima plant unprepared,” Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who chaired the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said in an introduction to the report.

“It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” said Kurokawa, an academic fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

"Certainly, the earthquake and tsunami ultimately caused the meltdown," Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Thursday on the "PBS NewsHour." "But if they had been well enough prepared, if they had had, for example, the diesel generators protected from being flooded, if they had means of water pumping into the cores of the reactors if they lost water, if they had had a better emergency plan, these reactors might have survived."

Kurokawa, the investigative panel chairman, issued a stinging rebuke of the Japanese government, bureaucratic regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Company, which have been widely criticized for sluggish action and the release of inaccurate information in the hours and days following the disaster.

Prior to the 2011 crisis, regulators had avoided instituting or enforcing rules that might have cost Tepco additional investment but also could have protected the public more effectively, according to the report.

“The Tepco Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco,” the document finds. “They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.”

These public and private institutions “all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements -- such as assessing the probability of damage, preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster, and developing evacuation plans for the public in the case of a serious radiation release,” the report reads.

In particular, officials at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, or “NISA,” were aware that some of the Fukushima plant structures needed reinforcement to meet regulatory standards. However, they neglected to demand these changes from Tepco, the commission found.

“In addition, although NISA and the operators were aware of the risk of core damage from tsunami, no regulations were created, nor did Tepco take any protective steps against such an occurrence,” the report states.

Evacuation plans also were not well thought out or implemented fast enough, the panel determined.

“The central government was not only slow in informing municipal governments about the nuclear power plant accident, but also failed to convey the severity of the accident,” according to the report. “Only 20 percent of the residents of the town hosting the plant knew about the accident when evacuation from the 3km zone was ordered at 21:23 on the evening of March 11.”

The commission based its investigative findings on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people, according to its report. It also had access to government documents and made nine site visits to nuclear power facilities, including the Fukushima Daiichi location.

Nearly all of the panel’s 19 meetings, some of which included official or expert testimony, were open to the public and broadcast online.

In his introduction to the panel report, Kurokawa took broad aim at Japanese culture for failing to more actively challenge the poor handling of the crisis.

“What must be admitted -- very painfully -- is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan,’” he wrote. “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

At a news conference following release of the report, Kurokawa is reported to have said it was not in the purview of the Japanese Diet-mandated commission to assess whether Tepco executives should be investigated for possible criminal negligence, as some public interest groups have demanded.

The panel reported “grave concerns” about human displacement and environmental contamination in the area surrounding the Fukushima facility. It concluded that the government and industry regulators still “are not fully committed to protecting public health and safety” and “have not acted to protect the health of the residents and to restore their welfare.”

Since the accident, the Japanese government has moved to create an independent regulatory body to oversee the nation's nuclear industry, but it is not yet in existence.

"It's actually very difficult to fundamentally change the culture of an organization, whether an operating organization or a regulatory organization," Bunn said. "And, of course, the organizations that benefited from the way things were are pushing back. And so they have not yet, more than a year after the accident, managed to make this fully independent regulator a reality."

Despite worries that future earthquakes might put at risk additional atomic facilities in the nation, a nuclear reactor in western Japan on Thursday became the first to return on line after last year’s Fukushima disaster.

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