Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant
By NORIMITSU ONISHI and KEN BELSON
In 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American nuclear inspector who had done work for General Electric at Daiichi, told Japan’s main nuclear regulator about a cracked steam dryer that he believed was being concealed. If exposed, the revelations could have forced the operator,
What happened next was an example, critics have since said, of the collusive ties that bind the nation’s nuclear power companies, regulators and politicians.
Despite a new law shielding whistle-blowers, the regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, divulged Mr. Sugaoka’s identity to
Investigators may take months or years to decide to what extent safety problems or weak regulation contributed to the disaster at Daiichi, the worst of its kind since
Already, many Japanese and Western experts argue that inconsistent, nonexistent or unenforced regulations played a role in the accident — especially the low seawalls that failed to protect the plant against the tsunami and the decision to place backup diesel generators that power the reactors’ cooling system at ground level, which made them highly susceptible to flooding.
A 10-year extension for the oldest of Daiichi’s reactors suggests that the regulatory system was allowed to remain lax by politicians, bureaucrats and industry executives single-mindedly focused on expanding nuclear power. Regulators approved the extension beyond the reactor’s 40-year statutory limit just weeks before the tsunami despite warnings about its safety and subsequent admissions by
The mild punishment meted out for past safety infractions has reinforced the belief that nuclear power’s main players are more interested in protecting their interests than increasing safety. In 2002, after Tepco’s cover-ups finally became public, its chairman and president resigned, only to be given advisory posts at the company. Other executives were demoted, but later took jobs at companies that do business with Tepco. Still others received tiny pay cuts for their role in the cover-up. And after a temporary shutdown and repairs at Daiichi, Tepco resumed operating the plant.
In a telephone interview from his home in the
Just as in any Japanese village, the like-minded — nuclear industry officials, bureaucrats, politicians and scientists — have prospered by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions, and political, financial and regulatory support. The few openly skeptical of nuclear power’s safety become village outcasts, losing out on promotions and backing.
Until recently, it had been considered political suicide to even discuss the need to reform an industry that appeared less concerned with safety than maximizing profits, said Kusuo Oshima, one of the few governing Democratic Party lawmakers who have long been critical of the nuclear industry.
“Everyone considered that a taboo, so nobody wanted to touch it,” said Mr. Oshima, adding that he could speak freely because he was backed not by a nuclear-affiliated group, but by Rissho Kosei-Kai, one of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist movements.
“It’s all about money,” he added.
Though it is charged with oversight, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is part of the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, the bureaucracy charged with promoting the use of nuclear power. Over a long career, officials are often transferred repeatedly between oversight and promotion divisions, blurring the lines between supporting and policing the industry.
Influential bureaucrats tend to side with the nuclear industry — and the promotion of it — because of a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven. Widely practiced in
According to data compiled by the Communist Party, one of the fiercest critics of the nuclear industry, generations of high-ranking officials from the ministry have landed senior positions at the country’s 10 utilities since Japan’s first nuclear plants were designed in the 1960s. In a pattern reflective of the clear hierarchy in
At Tepco, from 1959 to 2010, four former top-ranking ministry officials successively served as vice presidents at the company. When one retired from Tepco, his junior from the ministry took over what is known as the ministry’s “reserved seat” of vice president at the company.
In the most recent case, a director general of the ministry’s Natural Resources and Energy Agency, Toru Ishida, left the ministry last year and joined Tepco early this year as an adviser. Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government initially defended the appointment but reversed itself after the Communist Party publicized the extent of amakudari appointments since the 1960s. Mr. Ishida, who would have normally become vice president later this year, was forced to step down last week.
Kazuhiro Hasegawa, a spokesman for Tepco, denied that it was an amakudari appointment, adding that the company simply hired the best people. The company declined to make an executive available for an interview about the company’s links with bureaucrats and politicians.
Lower-ranking officials also end up at similar, though less lucrative, jobs at the countless companies affiliated with the power companies, as well as advisory bodies with close links to the ministry and utilities.
“Because of this collusion, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency ends up becoming a member of the community seeking profits from nuclear power,” said Hidekatsu Yoshii, a Communist Party lawmaker and nuclear engineer who has long followed the nuclear industry.
Collusion flows the other way, too, in a lesser-known practice known as amaagari, or ascent to heaven. Because the regulatory panels meant to backstop the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency lack full-time technical experts, they depend largely on retired or active engineers from nuclear-industry-related companies. They are unlikely to criticize the companies that employ them.
Even academics who challenge the industry may find themselves shunned. As
One, Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear reactor expert who has held a position equivalent to assistant professor for 37 years at
“They’re not handed out to outsiders like me,” he said.
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the main regulatory agency for the nuclear power industry, can choose from a pool of engineers unaffiliated with a utility or manufacturer, including those who learned their trade in the Navy or at research institutes like Brookhaven or Oak Ridge.
As a result, the N.R.C. does not rely on the industry itself to develop proposals and rules. In
The agency “has the legal authority to regulate the utilities, but significantly lacks the technical capability to independently evaluate what they propose,” said Satoshi Sato, who has nearly 30 years’ experience working in the nuclear industry in the
Inspections are not rigorous, Mr. Sato said, because agency inspectors are not trained thoroughly, and safety standards are watered down to meet levels that the utilities can financially bear, he and others said.
Dominion in Parliament
The political establishment, one of the great beneficiaries of the nuclear power industry, has shown little interest in bolstering safety. In fact, critics say, lax oversight serves their interests. Costly renovations get in the way of building new plants, which create construction projects, jobs and generous subsidies to host communities.
The Liberal Democrats, who governed
“Both parties are captive to the power companies, and they follow what the power companies want to do,” said Taro Kono, a Liberal Democratic lawmaker with a reputation as a reformer.
Backed by Keidanren —
While in office, Mr. Kano led a campaign to reshape the country’s energy policy by putting nuclear power at its center. He held leadership positions on energy committees that recommended policies long sought by the nuclear industry, like the use of a fuel called mixed oxide, or mox, in fast-breeder reactors. He also opposed the deregulation of the power industry.
In 1999, Mr. Kano even complained in Parliament that nuclear power was portrayed unfairly in government-endorsed school textbooks. “Everything written about solar energy is positive, but only negative things are written about nuclear power,” he said, according to parliamentary records.
Most important, in 2003, on the strength of Mr. Kano’s leadership,
Mr. Kano’s legislative activities drew criticism even from some members of his own party.
“He rewrote everything in favor of the power companies,” Mr. Kono said.
In an interview at a Tepco office here, accompanied by a company spokesman, Mr. Kano said he had served in Parliament out of “conviction.”
“It’s disgusting to be thought of as a politician who was a company errand boy just because I was supported by a power company and the business community,” Mr. Kano said.
Taking on a Leviathan
So entrenched is the nuclear power village that it easily survived postwar
Hearings on reforming the agency were held starting in 2009 at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said Yosuke Kondo, a lawmaker of the governing Democratic Party who was the ministry’s deputy minister at the time. But they fizzled out, he said, after a new minister was appointed in September 2010.
The new minister, Akihiro Ohata, was a former engineer at
As moves to strengthen oversight were put on the back burner, the new government dusted off the energy plan designed by Mr. Kano, the Tepco adviser and former lawmaker. It added fresh details, including plans to build 14 new reactors by 2030 and raise the share of electricity generated by nuclear power and minor sources of clean energy to 70 percent from 34 percent.
What is more,
The nuclear power village was going global with the new company. The government took a 10 percent stake. Tepco took the biggest, with 20 percent, and one of its top executives was named the company’s first president.
Donations can be sent to the
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs