Prominent Japanese seismologists speak out against “severe setback in safety standards”

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Japan is situated in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and frequent low intensity earth tremors combined with occasional volcanic activity are felt throughout the islands. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunamis, occur several times a century.

When Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three other cabinet ministers agreed to restart two suspended nuclear reactors at the Oi power station in central Japan they said that the central government “had confirmed the safety and the necessity” of the nuclear reactors.

Ever since the decision to restart, the public response has been overwhelming, with some public protests drawing nearly 50,000 members.  Opinion polls show the Fukushima disaster has turned the majority of Japanese against nuclear power.

Safety standards post-Fukushima face “severe setback”

Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist at Kobe University, has been long ignored by Japan’s nuclear village, despite watching his predictions of disaster unfold before his very eyes: First involving the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, and later after the March 11th nuclear disaster.

Ishibashi told reporters that seismic modeling by Japan’s decrepit nuclear regulator did not properly take into account active fault lines near the Ohi nuclear power plant.

“The stress tests and new safety guidelines for restarting nuclear power plants both allow for accidents at plants to occur,” Ishibashi told reporters. “Instead of making standards more strict, they both represent a severe setback in safety standards.”

Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a tectonic geomorphology professor at Tokyo University, said at the same news conference.

“The expertise and neutrality of experts advising Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency are highly questionable,” Watanabe said.

Japanese blogger Ex-SKF has been closely following events surrounding the nation’s financial, energy, and political issues, with an especially sharp focus on Fukushima and the Ohi restarts.  This week his site confirmed that the utility operating the Ohi nuclear power plant cannot find photographs of the crushed zone that runs through the plant compound, between Reactor 2 and Reactor 3 buildings

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency disclosed on June 25 that the photographs of the crushed zone that the agency had asked KEPCO to submit weren’t submitted.

NISA started collecting information after Watanabe had pointed out the danger of the crushed zone shifting, earlier this month.

The “Amateur” Seismologist

These days, Ishibashi is well-respected in Japan, he is hailed as one of the first voices in admitting that Japan was at risk of a nuclear disaster following a large earthquake, and his book, “A Seismologist Warns,” has become a bestseller.

Ishibashi said he still remembers his fear of quakes when he was a boy. He slept with a flashlight next to his pillow in case he had to escape in the night.  “There was a radio broadcast that night saying Japan didn’t have enough earthquake experts,” he said, adjusting his steel-rimmed glasses. “I decided I’d do that.”

In 1976, when the then 31-year-old researcher at Tokyo University made his first important discovery — that a fault line west of Tokyo was much bigger than assumed — the risk to Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka prefecture didn’t occur to him. The plant had opened that year above the fault.

Ishibashi says he didn’t start out as a critic of Japan’s nuclear industry, rather his view changed after a magnitude-6.9 quake killed more than 5,500 people on Jan. 17, 1995, and toppled sections of elevated expressway.

After a disaster that Japanese engineers had said couldn’t happen, the nuclear regulator didn’t immediately re-evaluate its construction standards. The revised seismic standards didn’t reflect evidence that earthquakes could occur in areas where there were no signs of active faults. The omission allowed the utilities to carry on without undertaking expensive retrofits, Ishibashi observed.

It said the plants were “safe from the ground up,” as the title of a 1995 Science Ministry pamphlet put it.  So,  Ishibashi decided to investigate further.

The result of his investigations culminated in an article on the Hamaoka nuclear power plant which was published in the October 1997 issue of Japan’s Science Journal.  Professor Ishibashi, coined the term genpatsu-shinsai (原発震災), from the Japanese words for “nuclear power” and “quake disaster” to express the potential worst-case catastrophe that could ensue.

The analysis read like a prediction of the Fukushima disaster:  A major quake could knock out external power to the plant’s reactors and unleash a tsunami that could overrun its 6-meter defenses, swamping backup diesel generators and leading to loss of cooling and meltdowns.

When the local prefecture questioned industry experts about Ishibashi’s paper, the response was that he didn’t need to be taken seriously.  The current head of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, Haruki Madarame, at the time was a professor at the University of Tokyo school of engineering, an dismissed his concerns as those of an “amateur.”

“In the field of nuclear engineering, Mr. Ishibashi is a nobody,” Madarame said in a 1997 letter to the Shizuoka Legislature.

On October 24th, 2011, Madarame was asked after a regular press briefing for the commission if he’d changed his opinion about Ishibashi.

“Because of the accident there’s a need to take another look at things, including the earthquake engineering guidelines, and we’re doing that,” he said. “Ishibashi contributed a lot to the revisions to the earthquake guidelines and his comments there are important.” He declined to comment further.

In February 2012, Madarame told a parliamentary inquiry that there were flaws in, and lax enforcement of, the safety rules governing Japanese nuclear power companies, and this included insufficient protection against tsunamis.   “Japan’s atomic safety rules are inferior to global standards and left the country unprepared for the Fukushima nuclear disaster last March.”

Ishibashi still cautious about recognition of danger

Disregard for the science extended to a government panel started in 2001 to revise seismic engineering standards for Japan’s nuclear plants, said Ishibashi.   After five years of debate that he called “rigged and unscientific ,”  the seismologist resigned from the panel in exasperation on Aug. 28, 2006.

“The point I was trying to make was that if you’re going to have nuclear plants here in Japan, they should be built to withstand the most severe shaking that’s been observed,” he said.  “They tried to chip away at that as much as they could,” he said.

“What was missing — and is still missing — is a recognition of the danger,” Ishibashi said in a Bloomberg interview after the March 2011 nuclear disaster.   “Changing the energy policy is a good thing, but I really do wonder if there will be follow-through,” he said.

Source: Reuters

Source: Bloomberg

Source: EX-SKF

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