The lessons of Fukushima

Management of the post-meltdown crisis has made the situation worse than it needs to be

November 16, 2013 6:15AM ET
Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) employees wearing protective suits and masks walk down the steps of a fuel handling machine on the spent fuel pool inside the No.4 reactor building at the tsunami-crippled TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture November 7, 2013.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Reuters

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011 and killed tens of thousands of people resulted in partial core meltdowns at three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Although the reactors shut down properly, off-site electricity was lost and backup generators failed. With the loss of battery-supplied cooling, fuel heated up and produced hydrogen explosions that exposed spent fuel pools and released radiation. The Japanese government evacuated residents within a 12-mile zone and temporarily banned foodstuffs from the Fukushima region.

More than two and a half years after the disaster, Japan's national nightmare continues. Ongoing radioactive leaks, allegations of corruption in contracting and managerial ineptitude by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO, the utility that operated the plant and is responsible for the cleanup) have made the situation worse than it needs to be. 

Too big to fail

For the past two years, TEPCO has sought to control the damage by cooling the three reactors that experienced partial meltdown and building facilities for moving hot nuclear fuel and for treating radioactive water, which is being stored in tanks on the site. But some critics claim that TEPCO is not moving fast enough.

Although there are 3,000 workers within the 12-mile exclusion zone around the plant, TEPCO has not hired any foreign workers; doing so could speed up operations. When U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz visited recently, he offered U.S. technology to remove tritium from the water making its way into the Pacific Ocean from the site. This is one technology that Japan does not have, even though releases of radioactive tritium have been a global concern. Clearly, the technology transfer could have been negotiated a lot earlier.

Just as TEPCO is preparing the delicate operation of moving spent nuclear fuel from damaged fuel pools next to the reactors into a consolidated pool on higher ground, lawmakers are debating whether to take responsibility away from the company and make this a government job. TEPCO, like many big banks around the world, was considered "too big to fail," but critics are now questioning what it takes for it to succeed. The Japanese government's financial bailout of TEPCO after Fukushima unfortunately has not improved the company's handling of this continuing crisis.

The importance of management

There are lessons here, not just for Japan, but also for the 31 countries (plus Taiwan) that currently operate nuclear power reactors and those that will be building such reactors for the first time in the future.

Imagine the unimaginable. Some reactors are safer than others, but none is fail-safe. There will be technical failures, operator errors and sometimes both. In Japan, planners failed to account for the possibility of two simultaneous assaults on the nuclear safety system: an earthquake and a tsunami. Some have criticized the nuclear industry for relying too mechanistically on probabilistic risk assessment.

Prevention is key, but response management can have a larger impact. Whether on the day of an accident or weeks or even years later, decisions about how to respond have far-reaching consequences. Accountability and communication are critical for rebuilding confidence in governance.  

If radiation transcends boundaries, regulations should as well.

Nuclear energy is more than a technical choice. Because of the potential for enormous disruption should an accident occur, politicians, industry and technical experts need to consider carefully how to implement nuclear power. On a national level, cultural biases need to be closely examined for their impact on organizations, management and operations. This problem extends to all stakeholders in nuclear energy, including government oversight and regulatory bodies, industry, and localities where power plants are situated.  

The structure of nuclear energy promotion and regulation, and nuclear energy's role in the economy, need to be closely watched so they do not reach the status of "too big to govern." Japan's promotion of nuclear energy, according to some critics, has subordinated regulation and made some communities economically dependent on it. Japan has made changes to separate regulation from promotion, but it cannot reform some fundamental characteristics of nuclear power. From an economic perspective, nuclear power often follows a trajectory that makes changing course difficult: enormous up-front investment, at least a decade to recover investments and then significant profitability. At most points along this curve, it is difficult to just say no. This is particularly true in countries whose governments have invested heavily to promote nuclear energy.

Best practices should always be followed, but some things may be too important to be voluntary. The international nuclear safety regime as it stands today is not mandatory, and even though industry leaders convened summits and ministerial meetings after Fukushima, there is still little appetite for binding global standards. The media registered surprise in the aftermath of the disaster at the apparent lack of initiative and authority on nuclear safety at the international level. If radiation transcends boundaries, regulations should as well.

Remaining idle

Japan's national nuclear nightmare is not yet over, but there are signs that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may exert stronger leadership on the Fukushima cleanup out of sheer frustration. As a supporter of nuclear energy, Abe is painfully aware that all 50 nuclear power reactors continue to stand idle.

Some countries might be tempted to ignore the lessons of Fukushima because they may never experience the combination of an earthquake and tsunami. After the disaster, many countries conducted safety reviews of their reactors; some have instituted shutdowns as a result. And some have revamped their nuclear regulatory structures to create greater authority and independence.

These are positive steps, but smart choices may require quite a bit more introspection about the safest and most secure approach to structuring, operating and managing nuclear energy on a national and international level.

Sharon Squassoni is senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. She visited Fukushima Daiichi in October 2013 as a member of the U.S.-Japan Nuclear Working Group.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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