Japan’s nuclear safety agency in fight to stay relevant

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Who is NISA anymore?

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency concluded in a report on Monday that the results of Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s stress test on a nuclear reactor in western Japan meet the safety requirements. However in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster which has destroyed the trust in nuclear safety, and brought to light many new potential risks for nuclear power operations, NISA has admitted that their basic approach to nuclear safety was based on the assumption that a nuclear disaster like Fukushima could never happen in Japan, and they actually worked to influence local support to nuclear power by working with electric companies in framing questions in favor of nuclear power during government-sponsored symposiums across the island-nation.

NISA was found to be so derelict of duty that the entire agency will be reorganized into a new nuclear regulatory body.  The chairman of the commission Haruki Madarame said that due to the reorganization the current commission will not be able to assess the second assessment stage, until it receives new mandate from the new regime to be resurrected from the ashes of the past failures.

Japan is no stranger to downplaying significant details about the nuclear industry

There has been a series of significant nuclear accidents over the past few years, the Monju sodium leakage accident (December 1995), the Tokai reprocessing plant asphalt drum explosion accident (March 1997), and the JCO criticality accident (September 1999). On each occasion, the electric companies claimed that the nuclear reactors are operated with strictest safety standards.  In 2002, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) announced at a press conference that TEPCO had falsified voluntary inspection reports and concealed it for many years, and TEPCO subsequently admitted the stated facts at the press conference later in the same day.


“Japan’s nuclear officials have tried to juggle promotion and regulation but the result has been numerous accidents and troubles.”

−− Kenji Sumita, a former deputy chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission


TEPCO’s ‘malpractices’ included:

  • Falsification of inspection records over many years;
  • Covering up data about cracks in water circulation pumps and pipes which are critical for reactor cooling;
  • Failure to report cracks in reactor core shrouds (stainless steel cylinders surrounding the reactor core), steam dryers, access hole covers, and components associated with jet pumps (which circulate cooling water inside the reactor);
  • In 1991 and 1992, tests of the leak rate of a Fukushima reactor containment vessel were faked by surreptitiously injecting compressed air into the containment building;
  • Written records of cracks in neutron-measuring equipment at Fukushima were deleted by contractor Hitachi at TEPCO’s request; and
  • Eight TEPCO reactors were still operating although required repairs had not been carried out.

TEPCO falsified reports related to containment vessel leak rate inspections conducted during periodical inspection at Fukushima Daiichi reactor 1 by injecting compressed air into the containment vessel in order to pass the inspection. The falsification of containment vessel leak rate inspections was not made public knowledge until one month after the TEPCO scandal broke, as a penalty, TEPCO was obliged to suspend operations of Reactor 1 for a period of 12 months.  Japan’s nuclear industry is run by a clique of public- and private-sector interests that have promoted personal and corporate gain at the expense of public safety.

Today Fukushima is in a safe condition called “cold shutdown.”  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is 40 years old and was supposed to be dismantled, but was kept alive just like many frail reactors all over the world.   Japan has shut down more than 50 reactors while it decides what to do about the future of nuclear power in that country.

These types of problems are not only found in Japan,  UK ministers were found colluding with French nuclear industry officials to downplay the events at Fukushima, the German nuclear industry contacted the American regulators for support to help quell the anti-nuclear riot caused by the March disaster. Both the nuclear industry and its government regulators are altogether too closely intertwined with the political sphere.

The Japanese Regulators have long been compromised by their close ties to the industry, and willingness to collude and withhold information from the public and international groups. NISA is currently part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is a strong supporter of nuclear power.  TEPCO’s management is among the key campaign donors to the conservative Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Recruiting attendees and manipulating public opinion in favor of electric utility plans has apparently been standard practice in the industry for many years.

TEPCO’s influence even extends into scientific laboratories. Not a single scientist or engineer at the University of Tokyo has ever been known to have spoken critically about TEPCO, even after the accident in Fukushima.   Many scientists, especially at the University of Tokyo, are partial to TEPCO. The company contributes millions to the university and supports many associations, think tanks and commissions, of course public relations has been useful to the utility until now.

Public trust in NISA was damaged when it was discovered after the Fukushima accident that the agency did little to actually regulate TEPCO, allowing the Fukushima operator to delay scheduled maintenance and failing to insist on upgrades to the facility which were determined by independent analysts to be necessary to prevent what occurred at the facility on March 11.

The Japanese nuclear industry has been plagued by safety breaches, scandals, cover-ups, inadequate regulation and a myriad of other failings over a long period of time.  When in 2000, whistleblowers alerted NISA that TEPCO had been faking safety inspections and editing documents and video footage, the safety agency promptly disclosed the whistleblowers identities to the licensee.  The scandal had no long-term consequences in Japan.

Shikoku Electric Power Co. admitted NISA asked it to mobilize residents to attend the June 2006 public hearing in Ikata, Ehime Prefecture, home to Shikoku Electric’s Ikata nuclear power plant. NISA wanted the utility to persuade people to speak up in favor of the utility’s planned use of MOX fuel (plutonium oxide mixed with uranium) at the plant.  A former senior official of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency acknowledged Wednesday that he asked two more power companies to mobilize their employees for government-sponsored symposiums on nuclear energy, in the latest revelations of alleged attempts to manipulate public opinion.

In July 2011, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan said allegations that Japan’s nuclear watchdog had asked electric power companies to manipulate government-sponsored symposiums on nuclear power generation could, if proved, threaten its existence.  The Mainichi related the findings to a police officer, who is later caught red-handed as a thief.  Kan said the close links between the government and nuclear power industry reminded him of how public organizations were closely tied to the pharmaceutical business during the AIDS scandal.  Kan noted that many pharmaceutical companies employed retired bureaucrats from the old Ministry of Health and Welfare to use their influence over the government in a practice called amakudari. The prime minister said the scandal arose because the government was more concerned about protecting the profits of pharmaceutical companies over the welfare of citizens.

The nuclear industry is much more complicated than just science. It is about politics, corporate oversight, funding, scandals, and spin. When the engineers in the 60’s-70’s built and marketed these nuclear plants, they were facing an energy crisis. They also skewed the very tough cost/benefit analysis (which includes a very expensive, very rare melt-down, which can’t be reliably forecasted).  They experts bet against the probability that a melt-down would ever occur, the Japanese citizens are left to only guess whether or not a meltdown of the nuclear safety principles and organizations will ever occur again.

So the question is, who cares what NISA says anymore?

How to interpret any attempt to restart the reactors using stress tests that are no more than computer simulations in some cases, and do not take into account lessons learned from Fukushima?  Most perceive it as an obvious attempt to pacify the fears of the public, without even addressing the serious flaws in the foundation of the nation’s nuclear security in the least.

The rule of thumb is that when you say something about a subject you know nothing about, you are likely to be wrong. But if you say it when you can easily go look for information first, it is crass ignorance. And if you say it anyway, it is a lie.  After Three Mile Island, the Soviets said, “Do not worry, it can’t happen here because we have a different design. Then they had Chernobyl. After the Chernobyl, the Japanese (and the USA) said, we can’t have a Chernobyl, because we have a different design. Instead, Japan has a Dai-ichi.  In fact, we can find evidence of this in news reports around the world, which include wild theories based on the fact that YOUR reactors tend to be far more dangerous than OUR reactors, superficially narrowing the focus to specific events in isolation, rather than looking at systemic problems that brought them crashing down.

One cannot honestly discuss the so called “irrational panic” of the public without discussing the fact that safety records have been falsified and problems downplayed routinely. The public’s distrust and fears are mostly rational and justified.  What we need to face, is that we will now try to engineer plants for a Dai-ichi and something else will happen. Between natural disaster, human mischief and human miscalculation there will always be disasters. We have to decide if it is worth it.

Weak regulation set the stage for the nuclear meltdown… Weak regulation set the stage for the BP spill… Weak regulation set the stage for the financial meltdown…

But don’t even ask if a pattern is emerging, it’s not.  The regulators have assured us that safety is still priority number one.

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