Japanese Plant Had Barebones Risk Plan
Mar. 31 (Wall Street Journal) TOKYO—Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s disaster plans greatly underestimated the scope of a potential accident at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, calling for only one stretcher, one satellite phone and 50 protective suits in case of emergencies. (For hundreds of workers!!!)
Disaster-response documents for Fukushima Daiichi, examined by The Wall Street Journal, also contain few guidelines for obtaining outside help, providing insight into why Japan struggled to cope with a nuclear crisis after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the facility.
The disaster plans, approved by Japanese regulators, offer guidelines for responding to smaller emergencies and outline in detail how to back up key systems in case of failure. Yet the plans fail to envision the kind of worst-case scenario that befell Japan: damage so extensive that the plant couldn’t respond on its own or call for help from nearby plants. There are no references to Tokyo firefighters, Japanese military forces or U.S. equipment, all of which the plant operators eventually relied upon to battle their overheating reactors.
On Wednesday, the president of plant operator Tepco was hospitalized for dizziness, offering the latest sign of leadership trouble. Earlier in the disaster, Tepco was faulted for a sluggish initial response; now it appears that its written emergency plans were themselves inadequate.
“The disaster plan didn’t function,” said a former Tepco executive. “It didn’t envision something this big.”
The two main documents examined by the Journal are Fukushima Daiichi’s disaster-readiness plan, which discusses general preparations and communications, and its accident-management protocol, which focuses on technical operation of plant equipment in an accident.
The main disaster-readiness manual, updated annually, envisions the fax machine as a principal means of communication with the outside world and includes detailed forms for Tepco managers when faxing government officials. One form offers a multiple-choice list of disasters, including “loss of AC power,” “inability to use the control room” and “probable nuclear chain reaction outside the reactor.”
Tepco spokesman Hiro Hasegawa said the plans followed and sometimes exceeded legal requirements, and proved useful in the crisis. For example, he said the emergency injection of water to cool the reactors followed the accident-management protocol.
Nuclear-power experts say few operators anywhere are likely prepared for the kind of disaster that struck Fukushima Daiichi. On March 11, the plant was hit with a magnitude 9.0 quake, followed by a tsunami estimated at 45 feet. The twin catastrophes wiped out the normal power and backup generators of nearly all the plant’s six reactors and also damaged roads and communication lines through which the plant could seek help.
Previous big nuclear accidents, such as those at Three Mile Island in the U.S. and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, resulted from poor safety standards and bad management, said Kazuo Sato, a consultant at the Nuclear Safety Research Association, who headed Japan’s watchdog Nuclear Safety Commission in the late 1990s. “This one was a natural disaster—it’s qualitatively different,” he said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations agency, has hundreds of pages of safety recommendations for nuclear-facility operators, but its recommendations aren’t binding on individual countries. An IAEA spokesman declined to comment on whether Japanese emergency plans fulfill IAEA guidelines.
The Journal compared the Fukushima Daiichi accident-management protocol against the IAEA’s general principles, and it appears the plant document generally hews to them. However, the IAEA calls for operators to cover “appropriately selected external events, such as fires, floods, seismic events and extreme weather conditions…that could damage large parts of the plant.” The Fukushima Daiichi protocol doesn’t specifically discuss how such events could damage the plant.
In the U.S., operators are expected to continuously update emergency plans and to conduct large-scale drills, typically lasting from eight hours to two days, at least every two years. The exercises are graded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which requires correction of deficiencies. The NRC describes the capabilities it expects plants to have but often doesn’t specify the equipment required.
Critics allege Japan’s regulators and operators tend to avoid talking about or preparing fuller disaster scenarios, partly to avoid scaring the public. Fukushima Daiichi’s own report on its accident-management protocols says: “The possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable.”
Banri Kaieda, chief of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said Wednesday that the ministry’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency plans to tighten scrutiny of emergency plans in light of Fukushima Daiichi. “We are painfully aware” the plans were inadequate, an agency spokesman said.
Following Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, Japan’s industry ministry in 1992 asked nuclear operators to come up with voluntary protocols for each of their plants in the case of accidents that exceeded their safety specifications. Those “accident-management plans” don’t have to be periodically revised. Tepco submitted the report on its plan for Fukushima Daiichi in 2002.
A serious accident at a Japanese uranium-processing facility in 1999 led Parliament to pass a law on nuclear emergencies. The law requires operators to have “disaster-readiness operation plans,” reviewed annually. It also sets base protocols that operators must follow, such as minimum numbers of masks.
In some cases, Fukushima Daiichi’s crisis planners exceeded minimums. The plan calls for 49 radiation-detecting meters, versus six required by law, and 100 cellphones on two systems, versus the seven required.
Still, many of the numbers suggest the six-reactor plant anticipated at most a modest emergency. It calls for a four-man medical team to attend to people exposed to radiation and other victims. Four protective suits with oxygen tanks were to be stocked, as well as a single ambulance and radiation-measuring vehicle.
Much hinged on the fax machine. One section directs managers to notify the industry minister, the local governor and mayors of nearby towns of any problems “all at once, within 15 minutes, by facsimile.” In certain cases, the managers were advised to follow up by phone to make sure the fax had arrived.
The disaster-response plans at other operators in Japan follow the same structure as Fukushima Daiichi’s, although some are more thorough.
Accident-management plans are generally written to deal with internal plant problems and don’t take into account external shocks such as a quake or terrorist attack, said Hokkaido University Prof. Kenichiro Sugiyama, who served on a government panel on nuclear accident readiness.
Tepco’s Mr. Hasegawa said the company is doing its utmost to put in place “emergency-response measures based on the operational plan for disaster prevention.” He pointed to successful steps such as the establishment of a disaster headquarters as soon as the quake struck.
After this crisis is settled, Japan will have to rethink everything, industry veterans said. This catastrophe shows “there is no such thing as overdoing it” in preparing a disaster manual, said Tsuneo Futami, who was superintendant at Fukushima Daiichi from 1997 to 2000. The attitude must be that “anything can happen tomorrow.”
MARCH 31, 2011
Source: The Wall Street Journal