Nuclear Operator in Japan Exonerates Itself in Report
ENERGY, 25 June 2012
by Hiroko Tabuchi – The New York Times
The much vilified operator of the tsunami-hit nuclear power plant at Fukushima released a report on Wednesday [20 Jun 2012] that said the company never hid information, never underplayed the extent of fuel meltdown and certainly never considered abandoning the ravaged site. It asserts that government interference in the disaster response created confusion and delays.
The report, inches thick, was compiled by an in-house executive committee, overseen by a third-party panel of experts and presented to reporters after deep bows by a line of executives. The company stuck to a defense it has offered since the earliest days of the crisis: that no company could have predicted or prepared for last year’s magnitude 9.0 quake and subsequent tsunami.
“The tsunami we experienced was just that big,” said the Tepco executive vice president Masao Yamazaki, who led the investigation. “The workers on the ground did their utmost under extreme conditions.”
The claims appear to be an effort by the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, to reclaim some measure of its former standing by distancing itself from the layers of missteps in the nuclear disaster, which left more than 100,000 people displaced and areas uninhabitable possibly for decades.
Over the last year, new details of the disaster have emerged that build a picture of an organization that ignored or concealed that its reactors might be vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis, used its close links with regulators and nuclear experts to hijack nuclear policy and — since the accident — has worked vigilantly to shut out close scrutiny of the ravaged plant’s condition.
Critics were skeptical. “The report is too full of excuses,” said Masako Sawai of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an anti-nuclear policy group.
“If we don’t get to the bottom of this accident, how can we prevent future ones?” she asked.
Japan temporarily went nuclear-free in early May, as the last of its 54 reactors shut down for maintenance, and local opposition prevented others from coming back online.
Last week, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda gave the go-ahead to restart two reactors in western Japan, a decision that has elicited relief from business leaders worried about a power crunch, but much furor from a still-jittery public. To quell public fears, Japan’s Parliament approved legislation on Wednesday to set up an independent regulator to oversee the nuclear industry. Previously, the industry had been policed by the same body tasked with promoting it.
Still, the jitters were reinforced on Wednesday after an alarm went off at one of those two reactors warning of falling water levels in a cooling tank for its power generator. But later checks revealed no leaks and the restart is proceeding as planned, the reactor’s operator said.
Tepco itself is pushing to reopen a large nuclear power plant on Japan’s northwestern shore. The company faces billions of dollars in compensation claims, as well as trillions of yen in costs of decommissioning the damaged reactors at Fukushima, a cost that has left its finances in ruins and prompted the government to effectively nationalize it.
The report’s most fervent denials concern whether the company asked to abandon the plant at the height of the crisis — a move that experts say could have contaminated a far wider stretch of eastern Japan, possibly even Tokyo. The prime minister at the time of the disaster, Naoto Kan, has suggested in testimony to a public inquiry that he had received such a request from Tepco, a request he overrode.
But Tepco claimed that Mr. Kan had misunderstood a request to evacuate just some of the less-essential workers.
“It is an undeniable fact that our employees stayed — or even voluntarily returned to the plant — to bring it under control,” the report said. “Multiple reactors were in trouble, all power was lost, there were frequent aftershocks and tsunami warnings. But still, our employees stayed at their posts,” Mr. Yamazaki emphasized.
And Tepco struck back at Mr. Kan, saying his meddling interfered in its disaster response. Mr. Kan flew to the plant in a helicopter the morning after the tsunami, and at times stepped in to give orders, causing “unnecessary confusion,” the report said.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 21, 2012, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Nuclear Operator in Japan Exonerates Itself in Report.
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