TEPCO Says Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Avoidable (WSJ)

Japan Utility Says Crisis Avoidable (Wall Street Journal, Oct 12, 2012):

TOKYO—In a stunning reversal, the operator of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant said it knowingly avoided implementing some safety measures for the nuclear plant out of fear of causing lawsuits, protests, or the need to close the plant.

It was the first time that Tokyo Electric Power Co. has admitted that previous errors in judgment contributed to one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents last year.

“There was a worry that if the company were to implement a severe-accident response plan, it would spur anxiety throughout the country and in the community where the plant is sited, and lend momentum to the antinuclear movement,” Tepco said in a report, explaining what it described as the “underlying reasons” the company didn’t have an adequate plan in case of such accidents.

The 32-page report was prepared by a special in-house task force for an independent advisory committee to the company’s board that was charged with figuring out how to reform Tepco’s nuclear operations. Its purpose wasn’t to uncover new facts about the accident, but rather to present a draft of a plan that lays out the steps Tepco needs to take to keep such an accident from happening again. Those steps include investigating what mistakes were made and why.

The report “reflects a degree of introspection that is historic and somewhat unprecedented” for a Japanese nuclear operator, said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, a trade organization that represents nuclear operators in the U.S. His organization has closely monitored the accident analysis and regulatory response in Japan.

The report said that Tepco could have implemented better measures to prevent tsunami damage and created a better accident-response plan. Tepco also should have had better training for its employees on how to respond to an accident, which could have kept the catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi from getting out of hand, the report said. Instead, training was “just a formality,” the report stated.The report largely repeated findings from previous outside studies of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and its causes. Tepco didn’t take further measures to prevent severe accidents after a series of upgrades it made in 2002, the report points out. The company determined that a massive tsunami wouldn’t hit the plant, but it didn’t have enough data to reliably come to that conclusion, the report said.

Where the report broke new ground was in describing some of the motivations behind Tepco’s failures to be better prepared. Tepco’s lack of an adequate accident-response plan stemmed from concern that acknowledging the need for a such a plan “would risk a lawsuit,” and “a latent worry that the plant might have to be shut down until a severe-accident plan was crafted,” the report said. No specific examples and no details of how conclusions were reached were included in the report.

“It is very clear that mistakes were made,” said Dale Klein, committee member and former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at a news conference after the committee’s first meeting on Friday. “The committee’s goal is to ensure that Tepco develops practices and procedures so an accident like this will never happen again.”

The report represents a shift in stance for Tepco, which had continued to maintain it had done its best to prevent an accident from happening—despite repeated criticism from government and private-sector panels that studied last year’s events.

In March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to the plant, sending three reactors out of control. The three eventually melted down, releasing huge amounts of radiation that have made much of the surrounding countryside uninhabitable for decades.

The reform efforts come a few months after Tepco was nationalized by the government, which pressed to replace the utility’s powerful chairman—a Tepco veteran—with an outsider who had been running the government-backed body that handled Tepco’s bailout.

Tepco’s admission of mistakes could have an impact on everything from accident-related lawsuits to discussion of compensation. It isn’t clear what the effect will be.

Tepco hasn’t said it is liable for the accident, nor has it denied liability, a Tepco spokesman said on Friday.

“Tepco has changed its position 180 degrees,” said Yui Kimura, a plaintiff in a shareholder suit against Tepco executives over the accident. “We want to know whether this represents a real change of heart.”

Ms. Kimura, who said she met with other plaintiffs to discuss the report, worried Tepco executives would be let off the hook, despite the admission.

Nobody connected with the accident has been charged with wrongdoing.

Other Tepco watchers said they are encouraged by the company’s desire to openly confront the threat of natural disasters.

Vijay Nilekani, a principal engineer at NEI and a subject expert on the Fukushima event, said the new report reflects “a big change” in Tepco’s attitude about its responsibility for the extent of the damage resulting from the earthquake and tsunami. “Until now, they’ve said it was an unimagined crisis that happened to them. Now they’re acknowledging there was a human element.”

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