Nevertheless, an extensive new report written by the Committee on Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants devoted an entire chapter to the issue.
Both industry and government share blame for these shortcomings. For instance, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operated the plant, admitted to falsifying reports to Japanese regulators in 29 cases between 1988 and 1998, as well as frauds in safety-related inspections in 1993-1994.
When improved seismic and tsunami safety standards for the facilities, neither TEPCO nor Japan’s Nuclear Safety and Industry Agency made sustained efforts to enact them.
NISA, say the authors, was the victim of regulatory capture – a situation in which a regulating body becomes beholden to the entities regulated by it. This was, to some extent, by design: NISA was subsumed under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The report calls this ministry “an aggressive advocate for promotion of nuclear power in Japan and abroad.”
The committee was divided on whether the NRC may be succumbing to a level of regulatory capture akin to Japan’s. The U.S. regulator has the advantage of being separate from nuclear research and promotion, which falls under the Energy Research and Development Administration. It also has formal independence from the Executive Branch (though not from Congress).
But some members note that the NRC committed itself in the late 1990s to increased industry participation in regulatory activities. This led to the establishment of some voluntary programs instead of direct regulation. Participation in the voluntary programs varies, leaving no assurance of consistency. A post-Fukushima examination by the NRC of U.S. nuclear plants’ severe action management guidance, for instance, found that facilities implemented that guidance inconsistently.
One incident that illustrates this faction’s view is the near-accident in 2002 at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. Corrosion had eaten into the reactor pressure vessel head, leaving only about three-eighths of an inch of material holding back the reactor coolant. The NRC had allowed the plant to operate prior to this discovery, despite strong indications the facility was not in compliance with regulations.