Reassessing nuclear safety and the ability to avoid disaster

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The Fukushima disaster is horrible and still unfolding, and caused a disastrous disruption to production and distribution networks not only in Japan, but around the world.

Prime Minister Nato Kan while still in office after the disaster is quoted saying that the combined situation of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plants has presented “in a manner of speaking, the worst crisis in the past 65 years since World War II.”

In this installment, readers are urged to ask difficult questions, understanding that not all of the answers will be provided immediately, but also keeping in mind that these questions cannot go unanswered.

Some questions firmly rooted in the minds of readers are; Why did this accident occur?  What went wrong?  How likely was it?  Could it have been prevented or mitigated?

Experts warn that few permanent safety measures are in place at the plant, where the initial rush to contain the accident saw a series of improvised solutions. They say that in another natural disaster — a big earthquake or another large tsunami — the plant could prove very vulnerable.

Last December, Japan declared that the damaged Fukushima reactors had been brought to a state of stability equivalent to cold shutdown, with temperatures at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessels stably remaining below 100 degrees Celsius, but the exact causes of the Fukushima No. 1 plant meltdowns remain to be determined.

The Japanese Government and TEPCO have battled over the last year in continuous verbal exchanges, continuous mutual guessing of each others’ intentions, and perpetual hesitations to disclose unfavorable information or take decisive action.

The people of Japan have every right and reason to be suspicious of official pronouncements about the safety of the remaining nuclear power plants. The events at Fukushima Daiichi point to omissions in many risk assessments.

There has been implicit and explicit collusion between the regulator and the regulated licensee, entrenching both in a perceived self-promoting “nuclear industrial complex,”.  TEPCO has long been accused of having tolerated or encouraged the practice of covering up problems.

Even Prime Minister Kan had come to distrust TEPCO through his career prior to 2011, partly because TEPCO had been caught lying about the quality of Fukushima Dai-ichi Unit 1’s containment in 2002.  These findings were only part of a slew of details that emerged which forced the TEPCO vice-president to resign in shame due to the uncovering of facts showing that the utility had knowingly been hiding evidence of cracks in up to up to 8 reactors containment vessels and other structural equipment due to aging.

In total, over 29 cases of possible cover-ups were found by August of 2002, involving 13 nuclear reactors at 3 separate facilities.

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