Japanese panel: Fukushima a 'man-made' disaster

The panel's report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster could fuel complaints that Japan is restarting nuclear reactors before key reforms are in place.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's reactor building number 4 is seen in Fukushima prefecture, in this aerial view photo taken by Kyodo on July 5. Japan's Fukushima nuclear crisis was a preventable disaster resulting from 'collusion' among the government, regulators and the plant operator, an expert panel said on Thursday, wrapping up an inquiry into the worst nuclear accident in 25 years.

A parliament-appointed panel has accused Japan's government, regulators, and a nuclear operator of creating a "man-made" disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which suffered a triple meltdown after a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the country's northeast coast last year. The disaster triggered a national rethink on the use of nuclear power. 

The 641-page report urged parliament to closely monitor a new nuclear watchdog slated to be launched in a few months. It also called for the government to be more transparent about its relationship with the nuclear industry, and to tighten legislation "to meet global standards of safety, public health, and welfare."

The panel's blistering attack on every agency involved in the crisis could hamper plans by the government to restart more nuclear reactors in a bid to prevent summer power shortages.

"The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco [plant operator Tokyo Electric Power], and the lack of governance by said parties," the panel said in a scathing report released on Thursday. "They effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly 'man-made.'

"We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual."

The panel said official reluctance to meet standards had raised the severity of the accident, which sent large quantities of radiation into the ocean and atmosphere, and forced the evacuation of 150,000 people.

"Across the board, the Commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety," the panel said.

"As a result of inadequate oversight, the SA (Severe Accident) countermeasures implemented in Japan were practically ineffective compared to the countermeasures in place abroad, and actions were significantly delayed as a result."  

Chain of command problems

All of the country's 50 functioning nuclear reactors were switched off in the wake of the crisis to undergo safety checks. Japan, which once depended on nuclear for about a third of its energy supply, was briefly without atomic power for the first time in more than 40 years after the last reactor went offline in early May.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has been pushing for the restarts, cannot have enjoyed reading the panel's account of the causes of the accident. Its report challenged TEPCO's repeated assertion that the tsunami alone had been responsible for knocking out back-up power supplies to the reactors' cooling systems. Instead, it said there was evidence that the earthquake that preceded the tsunami could also have played a role.

"As for direct cause of the accident, the commission reached the conclusion that we cannot definitely say any devices that were important for safety were not damaged by the earthquake," the report said.

"We cannot rule out the possibility that a small-scale LOCA [loss-of-coolant accident] occurred at the reactor No. 1 in particular."

The panel said Japan's 21 oldest reactors, built before safety guidelines were introduced in 1986, could be at risk from big earthquakes.

One nuclear reactor restarts

The report was released on the same day a nuclear reactor in western Japan became the first to produce electricity since the accident.

On Thursday, reactor No. 1 at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui prefecture became the first to be restarted after passing "stress tests" introduced last year. The government approved the restart of the Nos. 3 and 4 reactor at Oi amid warnings that, without them, a large area of western Japan, including the industrial city of Osaka, could face power shortfalls.

But some experts have said that an active fault may lie beneath the Oi plant, where another reactor is expected to start producing electricity at the end of the month.

The panel was also critical of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose "direct intervention" in the early days of the crisis had caused confusion in the chain of command and wasted valuable time.

Mr. Kan has said he was forced to intervene in the emergency response amid doubts over TEPCO and safety officials' ability to gain control of the situation.

The panel said there was no evidence, however, to support Kan's claim that TEPCO was preparing to withdraw all of its workers from the plant in the immediate aftermath of the accident.

The 10-member commission, led by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University, took six months to compile the report. It presided over 900 hours of hearings and interviewed more than 1,100 people.

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