New report reveals poor planning, communication in Fukushima nuclear accident

Updated On: Dec 27, 2011

A new official report has blamed both nuclear regulators and plant operators for a lack of planning, bad responses, and poor public communications over the accident at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi in March.

A government-commissioned independent panel of experts said both nuclear regulators and plant operators had failed to adequately anticipate a huge tsunami and its likely impact. Their report highlights planning failures, breakdown in communication and operational mistakes before and after the earthquake and tsunami.

The panel released a 507-page interim report yesterday, after a six-month investigation. The report strongly criticises Japan's atomic power regulator, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency (NISA).

Poor Crisis Response

According to the report, NISA officials left the Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the March 11 earthquake, even though according to the NISA's own manual, officials should have stayed to monitor the plant's status.

When ordered to return by the government, the NISA provided little assistance to Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) staff struggling to gain control of three melting reactors.

The official emergency-response centre set up near Fukushima Daiichi never functioned properly, and had to be abandoned early because it wasn't equipped to deal with elevated levels of radiation.

Lack of preparation for power failure at the station itself meant that workers were forced to use flashlights at the plant. Workers were even unable to recharge their mobile phone batteries, leading to breakdowns in communication.

Communications became so fractured that the high pressure coolant injection system at the No. 3 reactor was stopped by a worker without authority from plant managers. The overheating reactor was left without cooling water for seven hours.

The report challenges Tepco's claim that before the accident it had met government standards for disaster preparedness. The panel criticised the company for essentially shirking responsibility by labelling the events soteigai, Japanese for "outside our assumptions".

"People have a tendency not to see what they don't want to see, not to hear what they don't want to hear, not to think about things they don't want to think about," panel chairman Yotaro Hatamura said at a news conference after the report's release. "The latest disaster taught us the importance of recognizing such tendencies and incorporating such risks in our disaster responses."

Withholding Information

The report also criticised the central government's response to the crisis. In Tokyo, the central government’s response was muddled by miscommunication between two teams working on different floors of the same building. Communication was so bad that the decision makers on the fifth floor of the prime minister's offices often didn't tell the bureaucrats gathered in the basement what they were doing, the report said.

The government also failed to use its system for monitoring the spread of radiation in calculating evacuation areas. The report also concluded that the government erred in keeping data on the spread of radiation from the public.

“Information on urgent matters was delayed, press releases were withheld, and explanations were kept ambiguous,” the report said.

Independent Panel

The 506-page interim report was based on interviews with more than 450 people, including government officials and plant workers. The committee held over a total 900 hours of hearings by December 16.

The 12-member panel is headed by Yotaro Hatamura, an engineering professor at Tokyo University who specialises in the study of failures, and includes seismologists, former diplomats and judges.

The independent panel was set up in May by then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and is expected to issue its final report in mid-2012. The full report will include interviews with Mr. Kan and other Japanese cabinet officials.

In an earlier report, submitted to the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Japanese government previously admitted it had been unprepared for a nuclear accident on the scale of the one at the Fukushima plant.

Report: Fukushima Probe Highlights Nuclear Regulator [Bloomberg, 27 Dec 2011]

Report: Panel Finds Japan Was Unprepared for Nuclear Disaster [Wall Street Journal, 27 Dec 2011]

Report: Fukushima accident: disaster response failed - report [BBC, 26 Dec 2011]

Prospects for Japanese Energy Reform

The Mainichi Daily News has published an editorial on Japan's energy policy, in terms of an overhaul of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and comprehensive reform of the country's electric power system.

According to the Mainichi Daily News, it is beginning to look like Tepco will be nationalized. A final decision is expected before the end of the fiscal year in March.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government claims it will present concrete energy policy options to the public next spring, with plans to finalize new policy by summer. But there are doubts on whether the government will make this deadline. Even if it does, winning the public over will be a huge obstacle. The spring and summer timing also coincides with a proposed controversial change to Japan's consumption tax, meaning the Japanese government will be under intense pressure in 2012.

Currently the Japanese public has a great deal of distrust towards the government and pro-nuclear politicians, bureaucrats, academics and utilities. 2011 has seen protests in Japan, and some municipalities have even begun to return subsidies they received for hosting nuclear power plants to the national government.

Analysis: Fumbling gov't faces huge challenges in 2012 [Mainichi Daily News, 26 Dec 2011]

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