Editorial: Commission investigating Fukushima concludes accident was “man-made” disaster

“The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power station was clearly man-made.” The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) must take these words to heart.

This is the conclusion reached in the report submitted by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), a body formed by Japan’s Diet. The commission was established to clarify the causes of the accident at the nuclear power plant, a disaster triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Why did the commission conclude that the accident was a “man-made” disaster? While most statements since the accident, including the report released earlier by TEPCO’s own in-house investigation committee, suggest that the huge tsunami is to blame, NAIIC takes a different view.

NAIIC’s report indicates that prior to the March 11 accident, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, along with TEPCO, had conferred on the possibility of a tsunami leading to an interruption of all sources of electricity at the power station.

It went on to explain why a response to this possibility continued to be deferred and no clear direction for pursuing a solution was established, pointing to the fact that regulatory authorities within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry had become the cohorts of operators, which have formed close ties with the central government and local governments.

The report also argued that, in comparison to international standards of security at nuclear power plants as well as countermeasures for nuclear terrorism put in place in the United States, Japan had not taken vital steps to shore up its nuclear facilities. This is why the accident was not prevented.

Following the accident, a look at history confirmed the consequences of tsunami triggered by mega earthquakes, and the cozy relations among the electric power industry, the central and local governments, and some experts were revealed. These facts corroborate the findings of the NAIIC report.

Moreover, regarding the direct cause of the accident, NAIIC posed this question to the investigation committees formed by the Japanese government and by TEPCO, and both concluded that the specific damage suffered at the plant as a result of the earthquake “cannot be confirmed.”

The focus is on the emergency condenser installed at the Unit 1 reactor. NAIIC raises the possibility that an interruption to some sources of electricity was caused by the tremor, even before the tsunami struck, and contends that the operational manual for the condenser, as well as previous training on its use, were inadequate.

Because there are differing views on the effects of the earthquake, further detailed information is needed to confirm just what happened. If measures are pursued based on the assumption that the cause of the accident was limited to only the effects wrought by the tsunami, this could be unwise, making the security of these measures insufficient.

As the report suggests, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and TEPCO leaders bear responsibility for compounding the damage resulting from the accident.

The state of emergency issued by the Japanese government was belated. In addition, government officials stirred anxiety among the public with equivocal statements when carrying out evacuations (“as a precautionary measure”) and responding to concerns over radioactive contamination (“there are no immediate health risks”).

When vital decisions needed to be made, like venting pressure from the reactors’ containment vessels and injecting sea water into these vessels, TEPCO’s president and chairman were away from their posts. The company appeared to have abandoned its on-site workers, who remained dedicated to gaining control of the accident.

Meanwhile, the report offered a new perspective on the use of a system intended to predict the spread of radioactive materials in the event of an emergency.

The central government has been sharply criticized for failing to announce certain information it had obtained in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Among this information was data which indicated how the radioactive materials were spreading, drifting to the northwest from the crippled power station.

Referring to this system, the report said that making use of the data for the initial evacuation orders was “difficult” due to the fact that the information consisted of only provisional calculations based on hypothetical figures, since the actual emissions could not be measured as a result of the power outage. NAIIC’s view may reflect its desire to ensure strict accuracy in assessing the accident.

Taken in its entirety, the report provides a window into the stance taken by NAIIC, which seeks to paint an impartial picture of the accident by excluding the self-justifications of regulatory authorities and TEPCO. The commission’s orientation is based on the idea that “the accident is not over yet.”

NAIIC’s recommendations, derived from its investigation, should therefore be respected. This is a prerequisite for investigating unresolved parts of the accidents, implementing measures to prevent the damage from spreading any further, and establishing a road map to decommission the nation’s nuclear reactors.

The recommendations include a plan for establishing a committee concerned with nuclear energy at the Diet in order to supervise regulatory authorities. Some might express concern over such a plan, as politics could then impinge on the issue. However, it may be necessary to create a mechanism for enduring discussion, where continuing dialogue on an issue of such grave importance is made and the concealing of information can be prevented.

Good use of the NAIIC report can be made by thoroughly investigating the truth of the accident, as well as securing relief for the sufferers and moving away from the nation’s reliance on nuclear energy.

(Originally published on July 7, 2012)