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‘Groupism’ no excuse for Fukushima meltdown

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By Japanese standards, the report released last week by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission could be considered remarkable.

Its 641 pages, drawing on town-hall meetings, household surveys, more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people are the product of an unprecedented six-month inquiry — the first independent investigation in Japan to have subpoena power.

Its account of the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear meltdown, which displaced about 160,000 people and left parts of Japan unlivable, differs in crucial ways from those of Japan’s nuclear regulatory agencies, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. that operated the plants and then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Most important, the report squarely blames the catastrophe on a pattern of human failure, not a freakish act of nature.

Yet for all its detail and willingness to label the Fukushima disaster as "profoundly manmade," the report does not identify which men (and this being Japan, there probably weren’t many women) failed. Instead, it sweepingly indicts "the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture," effectively letting individual culprits off the hook. Its conclusions and recommendations avoid any discussion of prosecution or punishment.

Still, the report helps guide the way forward. A crucial finding is that the earthquake prior to the tsunami may have incapacitated one of the reactors and its safety equipment — a possibility that TEPCO had resolutely denied. Moreover, the commission found TEPCO had not upgraded that reactor’s seismic defences as required by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the agency failed to enforce the upgrade, and the recorded seismic motion at Fukushima actually exceeded even the level the standards were meant to protect against.

These findings suggest that Japan’s decision to restart some of its reactors — the first, in Ohi on Japan’s west coast, resumed operation at the beginning of July — is premature. The Ohi reactor passed the stress test required in the aftermath of Fukushima, but that is no guarantee it could withstand an earthquake of the same 9.0 magnitude. One of the country’s most vocal seismic whistleblowers, Katsuhiko Ishibashi, who foretold the potential for the disastrous 1995 Kobe earthquake as well as a Fukushima-like event, has warned the government is underestimating the restarted plant’s vulnerability.

Given the risks involved, the prevalence of seismic activity in Japan and the diminishing enthusiasm of the Japanese public for nuclear energy, it would be sensible for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to err on the side of caution and set as a temporary benchmark the ability to withstand a 9.0 earthquake before a reactor can go back online.

Temporary is the key here, because rigorous new standards will take time to refine and should be the purview of the new independent regulatory body the commission calls for -- and the government is moving too slowly to establish.

The long history of collusion between companies such as TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency — housed in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which also promotes Japan’s nuclear industry — has contributed to numerous deadly incidents and near-misses. The commission also rightly calls for Japan’s Diet to more closely supervise this new regulatory body. NISA resisted the commission’s inquiry, and TEPCO still refuses to turn over video footage of conference calls held during the crisis that might shed still more light on it. More political heat might make it easier to overcome such recalcitrance in the future.

Where the report falls seriously short, however, is the aspect that has drawn the most approving attention: its conclusion that the near-cataclysm at Fukushima was, at bottom, a cultural mishap. It is both a copout and a cliche to fall back on Japan’s "groupism" and say "had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same." Japan is hardly the only country where safety regulations are poorly enforced and old-boy networks protect industry interests. Witness the 2006 Sago mine explosion in the United States, where hundreds of earlier safety violations brought only low fines, and the revolving door between the coal mining industry and the U.S. Department of Interior was in full swing.

Moreover, notwithstanding the commission’s lament about the Japanese "reluctance to question authority," many citizens did repeatedly express their concerns about the safety of TEPCO’s Fukushima reactors, including legislators from Japan’s Communist Party. Their warnings were brushed aside by those in power. Let’s hope that the otherwise instructive findings and recommendations of this commission are not.

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