Whitewash versus Reality: “Disaster Made in Japan”

On July 5, Japan brought its first nuclear reactor back on line, after having been nuclear-power free for two months. Its 50 functional reactors had been taken off line for maintenance but were not restarted due to a groundswell of opposition. The trailblazer is reactor number 3 at the Oi power plant owned by Kansai Electric Power Co. After stress-testing the reactor, which had been idle for over 15 months, the government had declared it safe and had given permission for the restart. It’s expected to reach capacity in a few days. Oi reactor number 4 is scheduled to start generating power later in July. The reactors will bring some relief to Osaka and surrounding areas that might otherwise get hit by a 15% power shortfall this summer.

Alas, an old pattern came to light: KEPCO concealed from the government some of its studies on faults near the Oi power plant. Scientists were ignored though they argued that a fault ran between reactor 1 and 2, and that it and two other nearby faults could be connected during an earthquake and produce far greater shaking than the government had estimated in its stress tests, raising the risk of another major nuclear disaster. And they claimed that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) hadn’t properly investigated the fault lines. Under pressure, NISA called for more studies on the faults near Oi and other power plants. But that was it.

And if there were an accident, the escape route would be “a winding, cliff-hugging road often closed by snow in winter or clogged by summer beachgoers”; and radioactivity could contaminate Lake Biwa which supplies drinking water to more than 14 million people.

Ironically, on the day that Oi started generating electricity again, the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission submitted its report on the Fukushima disaster to the Japanese Diet—and it’s a doozy.

The accident “was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” wrote Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa (88-page summary of the 641-page report). The report found a “multitude of errors and willful negligence” that left the power plant unprepared for the earthquake and tsunami. It blamed the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture,” such as “our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to question authority, our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’, our groupism, and our insularity.” The report laments that “nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society,” where regulators and promoters were one and the same.

A “tightly knit elite with enormous financial resources” and “the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy” conspired “to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents.” A mindset that led to the “disaster made in Japan.” In 2006, for example, the government updated its standards for earthquake resistance, but when TEPCO refused to bring its power plant into compliance with seismic upgrades, NISA did nothing.

The report warned that reactor number one may have been severely damaged by the earthquake itself—that the shaking broke some pipes and caused a loss of cooling—before the arrival of the tsunami. TEPCO’s whitewash has so far insisted that reactors had proven their earthquake resistance, and that it was the collapse of the power supply to the cooling system that had caused the accident. And so the report cast even more doubt on the safety of the Oi reactors.

There have been critical voices in Japan, among them Koide Hiroaki, a nuclear scientist, who for forty years  has pointed out the flaws in the nuclear power industry. For that, he was condemned to remaining a lowly assistant professor his entire career, toiling without much recognition at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute.

But when the Fukushima reactors melted down, he became an instant media darling, and his new book, “The Lie of Nuclear Power,” became a bestseller. He was even asked to address the Diet. In his presentation, he spelled out how nuclear policymakers decided to deal with the possibility of catastrophic accidents: they labeled that possibility an “inappropriate assumption” and therefore considered nuclear power plants “safe under any circumstance whatsoever.”

So, as the Oi stress tests and safety declarations show, the same tricks are still being played, but they don’t work as well anymore. What has changed is that the nuclear power industry and its regulators are no longer the omnipotent entity but are on the defensive, struggling to stay relevant in face of popular opposition and protests. And Friday night, another protest against the restart of the Oi reactors erupted outside the official residence of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda—150,000 people, Japan’s largest demonstration in 50 years!

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