As Japanese officials consider whether and when to reactivate most of the country's 54 nuclear plants, a year after the Fukushima reactor disaster, they continue to face challenges to public confidence in the nuclear industry and its regulator.
The latest comes from a new independent study of the accident to be released tomorrow by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a nonprofit think tank. It describes the government's failure to provide accurate and adequate warning of the mounting dangers as the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) crews lost control of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan.
The report, "Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident," is based on interviews with more than 300 officials, utility executives and TEPCO employees. It describes chaos and conflict between top officials of TEPCO and the emergency staff formed by then-prime minister Naoto Kan in the most critical phase of the crisis, while workers were battling to control a buildup of explosive hydrogen inside three reactor vessels whose fuel cores had become exposed.
At one point, the plant manager, Masao Yoshida, urged that his staff remain on duty to try to control the accident, while TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu was demanding that the plant be evacuated, the report says, according to news accounts. Yoshida also disregarded orders from TEPCO officials not to pump seawater into the crippled reactors to halt ongoing core meltdowns. Injection of corrosive seawater into would have rendered the reactors unusable, a concern that was made moot by the massive damage to the reactor cores, U.S. experts said. The seawater injections eventually contained the accident.
The report quotes Kan's chief Cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, as experiencing a "demonic scenario in my head" in which four of the plant's six reactors exploded, setting off more explosions at a nearby plant, with massive releases of radiation, according to reports from Japan.
"If that happens, Tokyo will be finished," Edano recalled thinking at the time, according to the foundation report. Edano's public statements at the time did mentioned those fears.
Prime minister 'saved Japan'
The report says that Kan went to TEPCO's headquarters on March 15 and demanded that the company keep its workers at the plant to battle the accident. A government investigation presented a different picture, saying that Kan had misunderstood the company's intentions, which involved a partial withdrawal of the workforce, The New York Times reported.
"Prime Minister Kan had his minuses and he had his lapses," Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation President Yoishi Funabashi said, "but his decision to storm into TEPCO and demand that it not give up saved Japan."
A residue of public mistrust in the emergency actions by TEPCO and the government continues to stand in the way of a restoration of nuclear power plant operations, which provided one-third of Japan's electricity supply before the crisis.
Polls in Japan show that a majority of the public does not want nuclear power plants back online.
"Only two out of the 54 are operating, and these utilities are trying to work their way through the mechanics to get permission to restart," said Neil Wilmshurst, vice president for the nuclear sector at the U.S. industry's Electric Power Research Institute. Wilmshurst just finished two weeks in Japan assisting utilities there in their efforts to restart.
"There is tremendous economic pressure to bring these plants back," Wilmshurst said. Without nuclear power, Japan has relied on liquefied natural gas imports, which impose higher costs on households and industry and weaken the yen's value.
Some challenges to restoration of nuclear power are technical, Wilmshurst noted. The reactors must pass new stress tests as a condition of restarting and in some cases make heavy investments in additional tsunami barriers. But even when these requirements are met, the utilities still must gain approval from national and prefecture governments, which face continued public opposition to restoration of nuclear power. "My guess is the non-technical aspects will be the longest way home," he said.
Disagreements between TEPCO and government
Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington and former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, also returned this week from a trip to Japan to advise two separate commissions investigating the accident -- one appointed by the former prime minister and the other by Japan's Diet.
Meserve said he urged the panels to strengthen Japan's regulatory oversight of nuclear power, making nuclear safety the highest priority for plant operators, above cost and power production. Japan's regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, lacks the required regulatory authority, he said.
Emergency planning is not adequate, he said. "The accident revealed confusion as to the proper role of the government and the industry, and a failure to delegate decisions to levels at which there was access to information and competence. The existing plans were not followed and were not adequate in any event," he said in an interview. Meserve said he also stressed the essential responsibility of utility and regulatory personnel to raise safety concerns, and to be protected when they do.
The U.S. Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), in a report last November, related desperate actions by TEPCO crews to contain the reactor accident in the critical first week of the crisis, as they tried to operate crucial valves and instruments with truck batteries; hauled massive emergency power cables over flooded passageways where manhole covers had been dislodged; and faced a series of hydrogen explosions and sudden spikes in radiation. Food shortages forced them to subsist on biscuits and a bowl or two of noodles each day (ClimateWire, Nov. 14, 2011).
"Because of the tsunami and earthquake damage to the surrounding communities, little outside assistance was initially available. Some workers lost their homes and families to the earthquake and tsunami, yet continued to work," the INPO report authors wrote.
The INPO report also recounts how a decision to attempt venting radioactive hydrogen gas from stricken reactors was delayed so that evacuations from the area could be completed -- an issue that triggered disagreement between TEPCO and government officials.
The INPO report describes an extended and complex decisionmaking process that unfolded before orders were given to vent the reactor containment structures to relieve dangerous pressures.
A decision to vent Unit 1 was made at 1:30 a.m. on the second day, March 12. But the action was delayed to assure that public evacuation plans had been completed, INPO said. Once the venting go-ahead was given, crews were unable to begin until 2:30 p.m., almost 24 hours after the accident began, and by that time, it was too late to prevent hydrogen from escaping the containment and gathering at the top of Unit 1. An explosion occurred one hour later.