Lessons from Japan’s nuclear accident

Author: Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation

A cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami crippled Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station on 11 March 2011, causing one of the most severe nuclear accidents in history.

The Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, a politically neutral panel established by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, reviewed the emergency responses taken by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Japanese government agencies and other relevant actors during the crisis. The foundation’s 400-page report reveals an utter unpreparedness for nuclear crises and an astounding negligence of safety standards.

The industry’s pre-disaster nuclear regulation system was arguably the result of Japan’s Galápagos syndrome — a condition that describes the phenomenon of a particular product or society evolving in isolation from the rest of the world. Japanese nuclear policies and the attitudes toward safety and security among nuclear professionals unfortunately seem to have suffered as a result of this syndrome; these actors focused exclusively on domestic power games while paying very little attention to what was happening in the outside world.

A culture of overconfidence and arrogance among the national regulatory agencies and other relevant nuclear professionals, once praised as the best in the world, may have sabotaged Japan’s strenuous efforts to improve nuclear safety in the past. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), the authority that double-checks the regulatory activities of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), issued a statement in 2008 that vividly illustrates how the Japanese nuclear community has isolated itself from the global regulatory regime.

The Integrated Regulatory Review Service, one of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) peer-review systems, demanded clarification in June 2007 of the roles the NISA and the NSC played in the development of safety-assessment guidelines. Nuclear safety regulation suffered greatly as sectionalism and turf wars within Japan’s rigid bureaucracy left the system unnecessarily complex and the accountability of each organisation unclear. The NSC issued a chairman’s statement in response to the IAEA in 2008 dismissing the latter’s recommendations and claiming the current nuclear regulation system had been functioning effectively to ensure safety at an outstanding level, even by international standards.

Japanese electricity companies, including TEPCO, have also been unwilling to cooperate with the IAEA’s other safety-review program, the Operational Safety Review Team (OSART), since its induction in the 1980s. OSART is a peer-review system, in which international teams of experts conduct in-depth reviews of operational safety performance at a nuclear power plant by checking the factors affecting safety management and personnel performance.

The 1992 OSART review of the Fukushima Daini plants led to a number of recommendations, which TEPCO dismissed. It was revealed in 2002 that TEPCO also falsified 29 cases of safety-repair records regarding cracks found at several of its nuclear reactors, including those in Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1980s and 1990s. TEPCO declined an offer by IAEA’s then chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, to help in the fact-finding process, and this seemingly insouciant attitude continued when TEPCO’s then CEO subsequently announced to the media that he thought all the regulations were unrealistically strict and were not in accordance with actual operation.

The culture of secrecy and technical loftiness within the Japanese nuclear community was consequently enhanced through such events, allowing the industry to minimize the disclosure of detailed information about its operation, and to develop its own safety assurance practices which were not in accordance with global standards. This can be described as Japan’s withdrawal into nuclear Galápagos syndrome.

The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation revealed in its investigation that the Japanese nuclear community’s safety standards were not only out of sync with the rest of the world, but also completely ineffective and faulty in the face of tremendous, uncontrollable nuclear power. Neither top NISA officials nor NSC nuclear science advisors were able to answer the questions posed by members of the crisis response team once the disaster happened, and offered no proposals to bring the accident under control. Beneath this dysfunction lies the country’s bureaucratic sectionalism, where short-cycle staff rotations prevent officials from serving terms long enough to equip themselves with real expertise in their respective fields. This practice of staff rotations must be eliminated along with Japan’s poorly functioning regulatory organisations.

It is now time to break out of the Galápagos syndrome. The only way out is to develop a new philosophy, create further capacity and attract the right personnel — chosen from among government officials, academics and nuclear professionals — to properly fulfil the role of regulators. The Japanese government is considering the creation of a new nuclear safety agency this coming April that would replace NISA and NSC and function as an extra-ministerial bureau of the Ministry of Environment. Whether the government can staff the new entity with real experts and whether the proposed agency can stand truly independent of the nuclear community will be key to turning the 2011 disaster into something from which the world can draw lessons. The world should learn from the mistakes of Japan’s ineffectual nuclear regulation system so as to secure greater global nuclear safety for the future.

Yoichi Funabashi is President at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, which set up the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Asahi Shimbun. Kay Kitazawa is Staff Director of the Commission.

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