Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Diet Report on the Causes of the Fukushima Disaster

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, a Diet-appointed panel of experts tasked with determining the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, has released a damning 641-page report. The Commission interviewed 1,176 people connected with the crisis for more than 900 hours over the past six months. It blames TEPCO, lax government regulatory agencies, and a Japanese culture that bows to authority. The panel was chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former president of the Science Council of Japan, who wrote in his forward to the report that the meltdowns “cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. ” In addition, the report states , “The direct causes of the crisis were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011.” 

Members of the Commission wrote, “[the disaster] was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators, and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. We conclude that the accident was obviously man-made. The root causes were organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions.” In particular, it blames TEPCO for failing to adequately prepare, reinforce, and upgrade the plant for risk of earthquakes and criticizes the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) for failure to regulate TEPCO and the plant.

The Commission points out that in 2006, NISA ordered the utility to make seismic upgrades to Fukushima Daiichi. TEPCO willfully ignored the directive, and NISA failed to follow up. “From TEPCO’s perspective, new regulations would have interfered with plant operations and weakened their stance in potential lawsuits. That was enough for TEPCO to aggressively oppose new safety regulations.” NISA, the NSC, TEPCO, and the nuclear-promoting METI, the report said, “all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements. There were many opportunities to take measures that would have prevented the crisis. But they did not do so. They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place or made decisions based on their organizations self-interest.

Significantly, the report questions TEPCO’s assertion that the meltdowns were caused by the tsunami that followed last year’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake, noting that experts and TEPCO’s own equipment records do not necessarily support that claim. Radiation levels at the plant remain so high that workers have been unable to examine the reactors for damage and will be unable to do so for years. The panel looked in particular at reactor #1, where experts believe that small earthquake-caused cracks may have caused a pipe to burst, possibly leading to loss of cooling function and subsequent meltdowns. That accusation could have a profound impact on nuclear reactors all over Japan, which is highly prone to earthquakes, some quite large. TEPCO insists that the tsunami caused all damage, a position that elicited a sharp response from the panel: “However, it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected [tsunami].”

The report also slammed the government’s failure to effectively manage the crisis after it occurred, accusing it of rampant miscommunication regarding the immediate dangers posed by the meltdowns. “Its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response,” the report stated. For instance, in the days following the disaster, a government spokesman said that evacuations were being instituted “just in case,” rather than informing residents of real dangers as a result of large radioactive plumes. The panel also said that the so-called SPEEDI radiation prediction system was not accurate enough, and the government did not explain its limitations. That conclusion conflicts with the findings of a government-appointed panel and a private, independent report, which both said that the government should have used SPEEDI more effectively.

And, in an unusual move, the Commission criticized Japanese culture itself. “What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions in Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to threaten authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

State of Nuclear Politics in Japan

Japan has announced selection criteria for members of the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), slated to replace NISA in September. Members of the five-person commission, which will include four nuclear and seismic experts and a chair, will be forbidden from having worked within the nuclear industry for the last three years, and cannot have accepted more than $6,000 per year of industry funding. (Source: NHK)

NISA is calling for further studies into fault lines beneath three nuclear plants in Japan: the Mihama and Takahama plants, both operated by Kansai Electric, and the Japan Atomic Energy Company’s Monju fast-breeder reactor. Seismic experts say that soft fault fracture zones may interact with nearby active fault lines, increasing the risk of major earthquakes and possibly affecting the reactors’ safety.

TEPCO

In spite of ardent anti-nuclear opposition by Fukushima Prefecture, including a petition by the prefectural assembly to eradicate all nuclear reactors, TEPCO is continuing to pour 90 billion yen a year into repairing the Fukushima Daini plant—and is now attempting to pass those costs along to consumers in the form of a rate hike. Hosting four reactors, Daini is located approximately 10 km north of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, where last year’s nuclear disaster took place. Reactor #4 there has been repaired, but the other three will not be finished until spring of 2013.

A METI expert panel studying TEPCO’s recent request for a 10.28% rate hike is advising the government to reduce that increase to 9.3% or less. The panel said that TEPCO should cut additional costs, including payments to its employee health insurance program. The Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), which has been critical of the utility, is also expected to submit a report, at which point Yukio Edano, the head of METI, will make a final decision. TEPCO wants the rate hike to go into effect as early as August 1.

In the meantime, members of a TEPCO expert advisory group are speaking out about TEPCO’s own recent investigatory report, which basically said that the utility acted appropriately across the board. Genki Yagawa, who chaired the group, noted, “We are simply employees of TEPCO…with no authority at all. We had no choice but to leave the matter to TEPCO. It cannot be said that we have fully accomplished our mission.”

Restart of the Oi Reactors

Reactor #3 at Kansai Electric’s Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture began transmitting power on Thursday, in spite of widespread local concern about its safety and a growing nationwide anti-nuclear movement. Approximately 70% of voters say that nuclear energy must be abolished. The reactor is expected to reach full power by Monday. Reactor #4 will be restarted between July 18 and 20, and will reach full capacity between July 25 and 30.

Contamination

New studies show that radioactive mud is continuing to contaminate rivers and lakes in Japan, as well as Tokyo Bay. Some freshwater fish are becoming increasingly contaminated with radioactive cesium. Yosuke Yamashiki, a professor at Kyoto University, noted, “Even if no impact of radiation has yet to be found on fish and shellfish, we cannot tell what will happen in the future. We need to begin to prevent contamination immediately by reducing the amount of sand flowing.” He said that radiation levels in the bay are expected to peak by 2014 and will remain at the same contamination levels through 2021.