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18 March, 2011

Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Caps Decades of Faked Safety Reports, Accidents

By Jason Clenfield - Mar 18, 2011

The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risk in Japan’s atomic power industry. The destruction caused by last week’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami comes less than four years after a 6.8 quake shut the world’s biggest atomic plant, also run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. In 2002 and 2007, revelations the utility had faked repair records forced the resignation of the company’s chairman and president, and a three-week shutdown of all 17 of its reactors.

With almost no oil or gas reserves of its own, nuclear power has been a national priority for Japan since the end of World War II, a conflict the country fought partly to secure oil supplies. Japan has 54 operating nuclear reactors -- more than any other country except the U.S. and France -- to power its industries, pitting economic demands against safety concerns in the world’s most earthquake-prone country.

Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period.

Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismology professor at Kobe University, has said Japan’s history of nuclear accidents stems from an overconfidence in plant engineering. In 2006, he resigned from a government panel on reactor safety, saying the review process was rigged and “unscientific.”

In an interview in 2007 after Tokyo Electric’s Kashiwazaki nuclear plant was struck by an earthquake, Ishibashi said fundamental improvements were needed in engineering standards for atomic power stations, without which Japan could suffer a catastrophic disaster.

“We didn’t learn anything,” Ishibashi said in a phone interview this week. “Nuclear power is national policy and there’s a real reluctance to scrutinize it.”

To be sure, Japan’s record isn’t the worst. The International Atomic Energy Agency rates nuclear accidents on a scale of zero to seven, with Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union rated seven, the most dangerous. Fukushima, where the steel vessels at the heart of the reactors have so far not ruptured, is currently a class five, the same category as the 1979 partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in the U.S.

Back-up diesel generators that might have averted the disaster were positioned in a basement, where they were overwhelmed by waves. “This in the country that invented the word Tsunami,” said Brockman, who also worked at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Japan is going to have a look again at its regulatory process and whether it’s intrusive enough.”
The cascade of events at Fukushima had been foretold in a report published in the U.S. two decades ago. The 1990 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency responsible for safety at the country’s power plants, identified earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to failure of cooling systems as one of the “most likely causes” of nuclear accidents from an external event.


After Hokuriku Electric’s Shika nuclear power plant in Ishikawa prefecture was rocked by a 6.9 magnitude quake in March 2007, government scientists found it had been built near an earthquake fault that was more than twice as long as regulators deemed threatening.

“Regulators just rubber-stamp the utilities’ reports,” Takashi Nakata, a former Hiroshima Institute of Technology seismologist and an anti-nuclear activist, said at the time. While Japan had never suffered a failure comparable to Chernobyl, the Fukushima disaster caps a decade of fatal accidents.

Two workers at a fuel processing plant were killed by radiation exposure in 1999, when they used buckets, instead of the prescribed containers, to eye-ball a uranium mixture, triggering a chain-reaction that went unchecked for 20 hours.

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