September 2002

INSIDE TRACK: Dispelling a mushroom cloud of suspicion

The Financial Times, September 19, 2002
By Bayan Rahman

[Posted 20/09/2002]

The calm that envelopes the village of Kariwa, famous for growing plump, glossy rice and sweet peaches, belies the fear and suspicion that permeate its farmhouses and homes.

The village, in Niigata prefecture on the Sea of Japan, sits in the shadow of the world's largest nuclear power plant, known as Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. One of its nine reactors was recently shut down after the Tokyo Electric Power company (Tepco), its operator, admitted it had doctored safety records, forcing the company president and chairman to resign.

Despite Tepco's admission, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the industry watchdog, says the reactors are safe. The conflicting signals, which follow a series of leaks, accidents and incidents highlighting a culture of risk at nuclear facilities over the past decade, have raised questions about Japan's safety standards. They have also undermined public confidence in nuclear power, a pillar of Japan's energy and environmental policy. "The Tepco case may go to the heart of the question about the safety regulatory system in Japan," says Tatsujiro Suzuki, senior research scientist at Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry.

The Tepco scandal highlights ambiguities in Japan's nuclear safety rules and structural problems that weaken the industry watchdog. These problems have fuelled the suspicions of communities living close to nuclear plants and anti-nuclear groups, despite statistical evidence suggesting Japanese nuclear facilities are as safe as those of other industrialised countries.

"When I heard about what Tepco did, I wasn't at all surprised," says Daisuke Yoshida, a monk, a member of Kariwa's village assembly. "I was born here and I want to stay but I live in constant fear of a nuclear accident or a radiation leak. This scandal has proved the village was right not to trust them."

A whistle-blower at a subcontractor to Tepco two years ago warned the industry watchdog that the company's safety reports were inaccurate and some had been falsified.

The revelation, made public only last month, has revived safety fears three years after two workers were killed and more than 640 residents were exposed to radiation in an accident at Tokaimura, 120km north east of Tokyo. That incident, in which workers failed to follow safety regulations, was followed by the discovery that British Nuclear Fuels had falsified safety records on a shipment of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel to Japan.

After the Tokaimura accident, the government increased the frequency of inspections and pledged to improve the industry's safety culture. But the Citizens Nuclear Information Centre recorded 25 "significant incidents" at nuclear facilities last year, ranging from reactor coolant leaks to radio-activity leaks in fuel assemblies. This month, a Tepco reactor in Fukushima prefecture was shut after emitting more than 100 times the normal level of radiation.

These problems have whittled away at public confidence in the government's policy of building more nuclear power plants and using recycled Mox fuel in its search for a stable energy supply. But fear of stoking public hostility to nuclear power has in turn bred a secretive culture among plant operators, says Tepco.

Previously acquiescent local communities have tried to block new plants and prevent the use of Mox fuel. Although a quarter of Kariwa's 5,000- strong population is dependent on Tepco or the nuclear industry for its income, the village voted against the use of Mox in a referendum last year.

Even proponents of the government's nuclear policies are now perplexed, particularly as the industry watchdog is accused of having covered up Tepco's false records for the past two years.

Masazumi Saikawa, mayor of Kashiwazaki city, near Kariwa village, had been campaigning to persuade local residents to accept Mox fuel at Tepco's nearby plant. "I was shocked when the Tepco allegations came out. I thought there was a chance that we could have persuaded residents to accept Mox - but now the Mox plan is suspended. All we can do is watch and wait."

But international nuclear experts say Japan's safety standards are comparable with those of the US and European countries and the problem is a lack of transparency. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency's nuclear event scale, seen as a safety indicator, Japanese plants fare surprisingly well. In 2000, Japan's 50 power plants had 15 unplanned stoppages compared with 166 at France's 55 plants. The frequency of both planned and un-expected shut-downs was twice as high in the US as in Japan and almost four times as high in France.

Tepco's problem stems from Japan's nuclear safety regulations, in which government inspections are expected to show all plants to be in brand-new condition. Tsutomu Toichi, of the Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo, says the company may have been driven to falsify the safety records because it wanted to avoid carrying out minor repairs that would not be required in other countries. "Japanese regulations are too stringent," says Mr Toichi. "The utilities want to use the US and European system, which is clearer and more realistic." After an internal investigation, Tepco this week admitted its staff felt compelled to keep the reactors working and avoid informing the regulator if they felt safety was not at risk.

Tepco's investigation also highlighted the lack of detailed safety requirements from the watchdog. Japan uses a self-assessment system in which the utilities specify the details of inspections that are then approved by the regulator. There are no un-announced visits by the watchdog and the utilities are left to judge whether cracks and signs of corrosion are serious enough to be reported.

By contrast, in the US and Europe the regulators set closely detailed technical specifications for risk-based assessment and unannounced inspections are customary. Mr Suzuki says Japanese power companies have followed the same rules as their US and European counterparts but, by allowing the companies to judge whether to report, the system has created confusion. "Because there are no written technical specifications, it's not clear which judgments are legal and which aren't."

The Tepco case also highlights structural problems that undermine the regulator's independence. The industry's watchdog falls under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti), which is charged with promoting nuclear power and ensuring that Japan has a secure energy supply.

Japan remains the world's second largest consumer of crude oil, consuming more than Russia and Germany combined last year. But fears of a sharp rise in oil prices and of China's becoming a net importer of oil have prompted Japan into rethinking its oil dependency.

Its nuclear power policy gained momentum through the Kyoto protocol, in which Japan pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels over the next six to 10 years. The government's aggressive nuclear policy has resulted in Meti's overshadowing the nuclear industry watchdog. That, combined with the utilities' political clout, has left locals feeling marginalised and the public doubtful of the watchdog's bite.

But the Tepco scandal has brought issues to a head. Mr Toichi says there is now "a chance to clear several issues, especially the institutional problem of the regulator, which the government is now likely to review".

Mr Suzuki believes the government will accelerate discussions on setting clearer safety requirements and inspection criteria. There are also increasing calls for an independent watchdog. The NISA is considering unannounced inspections and commissioning a third party to examine the utilities' own inspection reports.

But dispelling years of scepticism among local communities, such as the residents of Kariwa, village, remains a formidable task. Yukiko Kondo, who campaigned with other women in the village against Mox fuel, says: "I don't feel that nuclear power is safe in the hands of the government or the utilities. But our family ties bind us to this area. If we leave, who will tend our ancestors' graves?"

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