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Japan's nuclear corporate & regulatory culture not so different from ours

Bashing Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), has become a regular habit in Japan over the past three months. While Tepco managers certainly bungled the response to the crisis at the company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Tepco wasn’t operating in a vacuum.  Indications are that failures of corporate governance policies and the regulatory entity’s cozy relationship with industry contributed to the environment that left the Japanese public angered at both the Fukushima Daiichi operators and their government in the wake of the nuclear disaster that befell their country.   Japanese policy makers still are pretending Tepco is simply one bad apple, while ignoring systemic problems and the Japanese public is intent on going after Tepco.

Protests outside TEPCO shareholder meeting
Protests outside TEPCO shareholder meeting

Angry shareholders of Japan’s Tepco slammed the company for its handling of the nation’s worst ever atomic accident after the March quake-tsunami, amid calls for the firm to abandon nuclear power.  Protests were held outside the shareholder meeting on June 28th.

In the meantime, here in the US policy makers are still debating the future of nuclear power while Mother Nature keeps sending gentle reminders of the risks. Flood waters from the Missouri River breeched a damaged berm around Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun reactor  over the weekend inundating the site under several feet of water. Meanwhile, at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb and home to 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste, wildfires are still raging.

But back at Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the NRC keeps telling Congress and the media that the probability of a nuclear disaster on U.S. soil similar to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown is “very, very small.”  And the rest of the agency falls into line with federal regulators insisting that U.S. nuclear power plants are operating safely while they move forward with 12 applications for new nuclear power plans and five different reactor designs, as well as more and more applications for re-licensing of the 104 aging nuclear plants now operating. 

“At this time the agency considers that the existing emergency preparedness framework and regulations provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety in the event of a radiological  emergency at a US power reactor facility,” Jaczko submitted in written testimony to Congress on June 16.  But the results of a  special inspection of U.S. nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster in Japan revealed problems with emergency equipment and disaster procedures that are far more pervasive than publicly described by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

The NRC ordered the inspection to conduct a fast check on the equipment and procedures that U.S. plants are required to have in place in the event of a catastrophic natural disaster or a terrorist attack in response to the March earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima’s reactors. 

Agency officials unveiled the results in May, stating  “out of 65 operating reactor sites, 12 had issues with one or more of the requirements during the inspections.”  But an closer examination of the reports from those inspections by ProPublica found that 60 plant sites had deficiencies that ranged from broken machinery, missing equipment and poor training to things like blocked drains or a lack of preventive maintenance. Some of the more serious findings include:

While the deficiencies don’t pose an immediate risk and are relatively easy to fix, critics say they could complicate the response to a major disaster and point to a weakness in NRC oversight.

In a summary attached to the inspection findings even the NRC expressed some concern.

“While individually, none of these observations posed a significant safety issue, they indicate a potential industry trend of failure to maintain equipment and strategies required to mitigate some design and beyond design-basis events,” the summary says.

The special inspection covered equipment and procedures for use in disasters that are beyond the scope of the plant’s design — major earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and terrorist attacks.

The Fukushima accident has focused the NRC’s attention on the risk that a natural disaster or attack could knock out a plant’s safety systems for an extended period and lead to a radiation release.

Although all plants are designed to withstand natural disasters, U.S. nuclear facilities are aging. Recent studies have shown that earthquake risks are actually higher than they were predicted when some plants were built, although the NRC says reactors can still withstand the highest expected quake (but that’s what Japan thought). Now historic flooding on the Missouri River is testing design limits at two Nebraska plants.

So keep this in mind, like the reports coming from Tepco and the Japanese government after the problems started at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, NRC’s jargon-laden communiques freqently reflect what the operator has reported, and do little to shed light on any issues or events occurring at nuclear power plants throughout our country.  When the agency says that America’s 104 operating nuclear power plants are being inspected to deal with power loss or damage that might follow an “extreme” event, keep in mind the NRC’s loosening of standards over the years at the industry’s urging and the other policies put in place because of the agency’s cozy relationship with the industry.  The nuclear industry here in the US is not so different from Japan’s.  Whose heads will we want if there is some catastrophic failure at one of our own plants?

The full report of lessons learned from the Fukushima incident will arrive on July 19. For now, the world’s other 336 other radioactive reactors are also being pushed by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to launch a series of national safety tests backed by international inspections.