By Jeff Kingston
In mid-2012, Tepco released the results of its own investigation into the nuclear accident and, with unseemly chutzpah, absolved itself of all responsibility. It was so embarrassing in its exculpatory excesses, and thoroughly contradicted by all three of the other major investigations into the Fukushima debacle, that Tepco disavowed this whitewash in October 2012, conceding allegations of numerous failures; this mea culpa was at the insistence of a panel of international experts hired by the utility.
The court case will focus on what could have been done that Tepco knew about to better manage the risks inherent in the operation of nuclear reactors in a seismically active area with a history of devastating tsunami. As much as Tepco would like to paint this as a “black swan” once-in-a-thousand-year event — something of such low probability of occurrence that it would be a costly fool’s game to prepare for it — Tohoku’s tsunami coast was fairly recently battered in 1896 (8.5 magnitude with waves reaching 38.2 meters) and in 1933 (magnitude 8.4 with waves cresting at 28.7 meters). So it would seem that anyone operating a nuclear reactor on that coastline would have looked into the seismicity of the area and prepared accordingly.
In fact, Tepco did so in 2009 when it conducted in-house computer simulations suggesting the possibility of a 15.7-meter tsunami slamming the site of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. That information was actually provided to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) four days prior to the Great East Japan Earthquake, meaning that it was information considered vital enough to submit to the watchdog agency.
Interestingly, in February 2011 the Fukushima reactors were granted an extension to their 40-year operating license, passing a NISA safety review. But NISA was sharply critical of Tepco and called for the urgent replacement and relocation of backup diesel generators that had stress cracks and were located below, and between, the reactors and the ocean, leaving them vulnerable to inundation. In addition, NISA scolded Tepco for its lax safety practices, a clear reference to the 2002 scandal when a whistleblower revealed that the utility had falsified the repair and maintenance records for all of its nuclear reactors.
Not everyone was surprised by the nuclear disaster. In 1975, nuclear chemist Jinzaburo Takagi and others established the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), which ever since has issued regular reports on power plant safety issues. Fukushima was the nightmare scenario that CNIC had long been predicting. In a 1995 interview, Takagi spoke about the risks of a meltdown in the event of multiple failures, as happened in Fukushima in March 2011. He correctly warned about the possibility of large radioactive releases from a meltdown resulting from a breakdown in the emergency core cooling system and the failure of back-up diesel generators.
“It’s inexcusable that a nuclear accident couldn’t be managed because a major event such as the tsunami exceeded expectations,” said Yotaro Hatamura, chairman of the government’s Third Party Panel Investigation Committee, blasting Tepco’s hubris in 2012. He added that risk management means anticipating worst-case scenarios — not wishing risk away.
[…]While it is unlikely that the Tepco Three (former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and two former vice presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro) will be convicted for irresponsibly minimizing risk in ways that endangered local residents or for cutting costs that compromised public safety, the trial will make the nuclear village squirm as the public revisits the folly of wishing risk away — and understands it is happening all over again.