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« The Race for Energy Resources Just Got Hotter | Main | Which Course Will North American Natural Gas Producers Choose? »
Thursday
Jul052012

Inquiry Declares Fukushima Crisis a Man-Made Disaster

TOKYO — The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture, a parliamentary inquiry concluded Thursday.

The report, released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, challenged some of the main story lines that the government and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have put forward. Most notably, the report said the plant’s crucial cooling systems might have been damaged in the earthquake on March 11, 2011, not only in the ensuing tsunami. That possibility raises doubts about the safety of all the quake-prone country’s nuclear plants just as they begin to restart after a pause ordered in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

It was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission’s chairman, in the report’s introduction. “And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

While assigning widespread blame, the report avoids calling for the censure of specific executives or officials. Some citizens’ groups have demanded that executives of the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, be investigated on charges of criminal negligence, a move that Mr. Kurokawa said Thursday was out of his panel’s purview. But criminal prosecution “is a matter for others to pursue,” he said at a news conference after the report’s release.

The very existence of an independent investigating commission — which avoids reliance on self-examination by bureaucracies that might be clouded by self-defense — is a break with precedent in Japan, but follows the pattern followed in the United States after major failures involving combinations of private companies, government oversight and technology issues. Those cases, which were cited by the panel, include the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, the Columbia and Challenger space shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003 and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The 641-page report criticized Tepco as being too quick to dismiss earthquake damage as a cause of the fuel meltdowns at three of the plant’s six reactors, which overheated when the site lost power. Tepco has contended that the plant withstood the earthquake that rocked eastern Japan, instead placing blame for the disaster on what some experts have called a “once in a millennium” tsunami that followed. Such a rare calamity was beyond the scope of contingency planning, Tepco executives have suggested, and was unlikely to pose a threat to Japan’s other nuclear reactors in the foreseeable future.

The parliamentary report, based on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people, suggests that Reactor No. 1, in particular, might have suffered earthquake damage, including the possibility that pipes burst from the shaking, leading to a loss of coolant even before the tsunami hit the plant about 30 minutes after the initial earthquake. It emphasized that a full assessment would require better access to the inner workings of the reactors, which may not be possible for years.

However,” the report said, “it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami),” the report continued, adding, “and not on the more foreseeable quake.”

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