Published in The Hindu on February 29, 2012
Japan’s Nuclear Safety chairman Haruki Madarame’s recent admission at a parliamentary investigation that the “safety requirements” of the 40-year-old Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for “tsunami and power losses were too loose” goes against the grain of expecting the unexpected when dealing with nuclear power reactor safety. If overdependence on nuclear energy to power a country perched on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the world’s most active earthquake zone, is bad enough, the choice of a basement to house the backup power generators that should kick in during an emergency is absurd. If the 9-magnitude earthquake of March 11, 2011 knocked off power supply from the grid, the tsunami that soon followed killed the backup power to the units. It has now come to light that Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission head, Shunsuke Kondo, was fully aware of the faulty design of the plant. In fact, the rot runs even deeper. Madarame admitted that the “country’s regulations are flawed, outdated and below global standards.” He said “the root of the problem lies” in Japan spending time making “excuses as to why we don’t have to follow” the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines even when other countries implement them.
The operator, TEPCO, is equally culpable. For instance, it missed safety checks at Fukushima over a 10-year period up to two weeks before the March 11 quake. The undoctored nuclear-reactor manual has revealed how ill prepared the company was in dealing with contingency measures. The 2007 earthquake that hit seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant revealed that the company had knowingly built the reactor on top of a seismically active fault line. Fabrication and falsification of data has been its forte. Unfortunately the company was able to get away with these violations. The reason for this is not difficult to find. Nuclear regulators and operators make for strange bedfellows, but sadly, that has been the case in Japan. For instance, ignition of hydrogen has been cited as the cause of explosion at the units. But can that throw up heavy metals like plutonium-238 up to 45 km from the units? Two members of the Diet in a paper in the December 15, 2011 issue of Nature have also questioned the veracity of TEPCO’s claim of meltdown magnitude. Unfortunately, the interim report submitted by the cabinet-constituted committee has failed to address such issues. Considering the recent admissions by the regulator and the track record of the operator, should the world rely on them to know the truth? Only a thorough investigation by truly impartial and independent scientists can provide the answers. That can happen only if the Fukushima plant is nationalised.