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Can't count on luck

September 12, 2014

Editorial: Nuclear plants cannot rely on luck


A document detailing testimony by the late former head of the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant conveys the terror of the serious accident at the atomic power station that occurred 3 1/2 years ago.

The record of the government fact-finding panel's hearing of Masao Yoshida, former head of the power plant, over the accident has been released along with those on interviews with 18 others.

The document quotes Yoshida as saying, "Nobody came to help us," "Necessary supplies didn't reach us," and "there was a wide perception gap between the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) headquarters and the prime minister's office."

Both power companies including TEPCO and the government should pay close attention to Yoshida's testimony and clarify whether each problem he pointed out has been improved.

When the nuclear disaster broke out, the biggest challenge Yoshida and other workers encountered was to inject water into the plant's reactors, and they were asking for outside help. However, no one extended substantive or effective assistance to the plant. A lot of equipment that plant workers needed, such as power-supply vehicles, batteries, fire engines and diesel fuel, reached a nearby supply depot, but there was nobody who was able to transport the supplies to the power station. As a result, workers at the plant were forced to come to the depot to pick up the supplies despite a serious shortage of personnel at the power station. Such a frustrating situation is apparently attributable to high radiation levels inside the plant.

Power companies are primarily responsible for dealing with any accident at power plants they operate. Regardless, it is imperative to address in advance how to support workers at a nuclear power plant where radiation levels have surged in case of a serious nuclear accident and how the national and local governments, the Self-Defense Forces and firefighters should cooperate in responding to the accident.

During the hearing, Yoshida repeatedly pointed out a perception gap between plant workers, the TEPCO headquarters and the prime minister's office. The headquarters and the prime minister's office did not understand the situation of the plant at the time of the accident. As such, the headquarters ordered plant workers to stop injecting sea water in the reactors at the strong urging of the prime minister's office, obstructing worker's efforts to bring the crisis under control instead of extending support to the workers. The central government and utilities should clearly show whether they have implemented remedial measures to prevent a recurrence of such a problem.

The government stiffened regulatory standards for nuclear plants following the accident but emphasis is primarily placed on the hardware aspect. It is necessary to verify how far countermeasures in the software aspect, such as information and personnel, the flow of supplies and the chain of command, have been taken.

Yoshida, who faced a difficult response to the crisis in which the plant's No. 1 to 4 reactors fell into critical condition, pointed out problems involving the concentration of nuclear plants in small areas. However, Japan still faces risks arising from multiple nuclear plants in many areas, and it is necessary to seriously consider how to rectify the situation.

Yoshida's testimony suggests that the Fukushima No. 1 plant barely evaded a further catastrophe thanks to good luck.

Recalling the critical situation in which workers had been unable to inject water into the No. 2 reactor over an extended period, Yoshida was quoted as saying, "We were afraid that all radioactive substances would leak and spread. We visualized all of eastern Japan being devastated."

Keeping in mind that the worst-case scenario cannot be prevented by good luck, the government and power suppliers that are aiming to reactivate idled nuclear plants should learn lessons from the Yoshida testimony and all documents released by the government's fact-finding panel.

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