TEPCO president promises utility will do its best in 2014 to “not have any problems”

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Nearly three years after the onset of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, most readers may be surprised to watch Japan continue a largely unrealistic approach to mitigating the accident and decontaminating the land around the crippled nuclear facility.

On Monday, during a New Year’s speech at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, some 10 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Kazuhiki Shimokobe, chairman of Tokyo Electric, urged employees to rededicate themselves to working for the evacuees of the disaster.

Later, Naomi Hirose, president of Tokyo Electric acknowledged that TEPCO was incapable of adequately dealing with problems in 2013, and was continually responding late to issues as they arose.  Hirose said that the utility will do its best this year “not to have any problems.”

It is impossible to believe that TEPCO will not experience any problems over the course of the next year, further it seems almost ignorant to even assume that there will not be any problems.  Over the last three years Tokyo Electric has not made much progress, if any, in locating the three melted reactor cores, except for determining where they are not.  Most of the work onsite has been to prevent things from deteriorating rather than bringing the situation to a close.

In most safety-related industries, trainers work hard to remind workers that being ‘casual’ about safety can lead to a casualty.  Safety doesn’t happen by accident, it is a state of mind.  A famous proverb reminds us that it is better to be careful a thousand times than dead once.

This type of brazen over-confidence is often a prime example of “too much of a good thing.”  The “it’ll never happen again” attitude habitually leads to improper procedures and methods of work, all of which have the ability to lead to additional surprises or accidents.

Additionally, one of the key common causes of most industrial accidents is an astounding lack of awareness or proper understanding of the difficulties being faced, which often leads to taking shortcuts in the hopes of getting the job done faster and at a lower cost.  What we are not aware of and what we do not properly understand are often also things which are easy to minimize and take for granted.

Workers at Fukushima Daiichi are being asked every day to accomplish critical tasks with incomplete instructions.  It is nearly impossible to do a job safely and right the first time if forced to rely on incomplete information.

Bob Alvarez, a former official at the Department of Energy, routinely reminds those following nuclear-related matters that “the only surprise is when there are no more surprises.”  Unfortunately, a little ignorance can also easily lead us into surprises.

What we are witnessing is not exclusive to the nuclear industry as much as it is the typical response of industries as a whole to a devastating disaster; chiefly, that they react uncharacteristically slowly and in an inefficient fashion.

Poor attitudes towards quality, safety, and production, create hazards of all types.  The same attitudes can be found at other industrial accidents like Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, etc.

In large-scale industries, safety has always been negotiable when it stands in the way of making profit.  Once placed upon the scales of industry, safety precautions do not carry near the same weight when balanced against cost efficiency.

There are many differences between natural disasters and industrial disasters, largely that what were once considered achievements now have become a source of havoc,  and additionally that despite our efforts — all of our precautions failed to prevent them.

This is not the time for public reassurance through the form of PR statements.  It is the time for action and candor.  It is also admittedly a time when sacrifices will have to be made.  We aren’t dealing with “best-case” alternatives as much as we are working to avoid “worst possible” outcomes.

What we really need at Fukushima Daiichi are leaders that the public can get behind and support.  Leadership requires characteristics like wisdom, openness, and honesty, characteristics which are rarely visible at the site of Japan’s worst nuclear disaster.

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