Japan’s nuclear disaster caps decades of accidents and fake reports
TOKYO — The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents, and underestimated earthquake risk in Japan’s atomic power industry.
The destruction caused by last week’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami comes less than four years after a 6.8 quake shut the world’s biggest atomic plant, also run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. In 2002 and 2007, disclosures the utility had faked repair records forced the resignation of the company’s chairman and president and a three-week shutdown of all 17 of its reactors.
With almost no oil or gas reserves of its own, Japan has made nuclear power a national priority since the 1960s. Japan has 54 operating nuclear reactors — more than any other country except the United States and France — to power its industries, pitting economic demands against safety concerns in the world’s most earthquake-prone country.
Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports, and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period.
Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismology professor at Kobe University, has said Japan’s history of nuclear accidents stems from an overconfidence in plant engineering. In 2006, he resigned from a government panel on reactor safety, saying the review process was rigged and “unscientific.’’
In an interview in 2007 after Tokyo Electric’s Kashiwazaki nuclear plant was struck by an earthquake, Ishibashi said fundamental improvements were needed in engineering standards for atomic power stations, without which Japan could see a catastrophic disaster.
“We didn’t learn anything,’’ Ishibashi said in a phone interview this week. “Nuclear power is national policy and there’s a real reluctance to scrutinize it.’’
The 40-year-old Fukushima plant, built in the 1970s when Japan’s first wave of nuclear construction began, stood up to the country’s worst earthquake on record March 11 only to have its power and back-up generators knocked out by the 25-foot tsunami that followed.
Lacking electricity to pump water needed to cool the atomic core, engineers vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere to release pressure, leading to a series of explosions that blew out concrete walls around the reactors.
Radiation readings spiked around Fukushima as the disaster widened, forcing the evacuation of 200,000 people and causing radiation levels to rise on the outskirts of Tokyo, 135 miles to the south, with a population of 30 million.
Back-up diesel generators that might have averted the disaster were positioned in a basement, where they were overwhelmed by waves.
“This in the country that invented the word ‘tsunami,’’’ said Ken Brockman, a former director of nuclear installation safety at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and a former worker at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Japan is going to have a look again at its regulatory process and whether it’s intrusive enough.’’
The cascade of events at Fukushima had been foretold in a report published in the United States two decades ago. The 1990 report by the NRC identified earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to failure of cooling systems as one of the “most likely causes’’ of nuclear accidents from an external event.
While the report was cited in a 2004 statement by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, it seems adequate measures to address the risk were not taken by Tokyo Electric, said Jun Tateno, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and professor at Chuo University.
“It’s questionable whether Tokyo Electric really studied the risks,’’ Tateno said in an interview.
Hajime Motojuku, a utility spokesman, said he couldn’t immediately confirm whether the company was aware of the report.
All six boiling water reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were designed by
Mitsuhiko Tanaka, 67, working as an engineer at Babcock Hitachi, helped design and supervise the manufacture of a $250 million steel pressure vessel for Tokyo Electric in 1975. Today, that vessel holds the fuel rods in the core of the No. 4 reactor at the Daiichi plant.
Tanaka says the vessel was damaged in the production process. He says he knows because he orchestrated the coverup. When he brought his accusations to the government more than a decade later, he was ignored, he says.
The accident occurred when Tanaka and his team were strengthening the steel in the pressure vessel, heating it in a furnace to more than 1,112 degrees, a temperature that melts metal. Braces that should have been inside the vessel during the blasting were either forgotten or fell over. After it cooled, Tanaka found that its walls had warped.
The law required the flawed vessel be scrapped, a loss that Tanaka said might have bankrupted the company. Rather than sacrifice years of work and risk the company’s survival, Tanaka used computer modeling to devise a way to reshape the vessel so that no one would know it had been damaged. He did that with Hitachi’s blessings, he said.
“I saved the company billions of yen,’’ Tanaka said in an interview March 12, the day after the earthquake. Tanaka says he got a 3 million yen bonus ($38,000) from Hitachi and a plaque acknowledging his “extraordinary’’ effort in 1974. “At the time, I felt like a hero.’’
That changed with Chernobyl. Two years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Tanaka went to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to report the coverup he’d engineered more than a decade earlier. Hitachi denied his accusation and the government refused to investigate.
In 1988, Hitachi met with Tanaka to discuss the work he had done to fix the dent in the vessel. They concluded that there was no safety problem, said Hitachi spokesman Yuichi Izumisawa. “We have not revised our view since then,’’ Izumisawa said.
Tokyo Electric in 2002 admitted it had falsified repair reports at nuclear plants for more than two decades. Chairman Hiroshi Araki and president Nobuyama Minami resigned to take responsibility for hundreds of occasions on which the company had submitted false data to the regulator.
Then in 2007, the utility said it hadn’t come entirely clean five years earlier. It had concealed at least six emergency stoppages at its Daiichi station and a “critical’’ reaction at the plant’s No. 3 unit that lasted for seven hours.
Kansai Electric Power Co., the utility that provides Osaka with electricity, said it also faked nuclear safety records. Chubu Electric Power Co., Tohoku Electric Power Co., and Hokuriku Electric Power Co. said the same.
Only months after that second round of disclosures, an earthquake struck a cluster of seven reactors run by Tokyo Electric on Japan’s north coast. The Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s biggest, was hit by a 6.8 magnitude temblor that buckled walls and caused a fire.