TEPCO’s shady history

In 2002, Tokyo Electric Co. admitted to falsifying its records of nuclear inspections and hiding the facts for more than a decade. Ironically, the information came from a whistleblower at GE, which helped build the plants and has contracted with TEPCO on operational matters for decades.

JUST POSTED: “Nuclear Gypsies.” A 1980 report alleges that GE hired primarily black subcontractors for its Japanese plants, including TEPCO’s Fukushima reactors.

MORE UPDATES: Embattled TEPCO faces its BP moment – Observer/Guardian. Frustrated with TEPCO, Kan turns to SDF in nuclear crisis – Mainichi Daily News.

The problems at the tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant at Fukushima continue to mount. On Monday in Japan, another hydrogen explosion shook the plant as the utility and the government tried furiously to stop a meltdown at two reactors. This morning the New York Times is reporting that “experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.”

If we’ve learned anything from the crisis so far, it’s that the Japan government and its nuclear industry don’t have the smoothest PR in the world. Ever since the tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling system on Friday and the reactor cores began over-heating, the official word has been confusing, contradictory and downright mysterious.

The problem was underscored in a most ludicrous way on Saturday afternoon in Washington, when the Japanese Ambassador appeared on CNN with Wolf Blitzter and sought almost desperately to reassure the world that everything was fine. “No meltdown,” he snapped to Wolf. But, within minutes, the ambassador was contradicted by the head of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety agency, which  told CNN that a meltdown actually “might be under way.” Hard to reconcile those two points (see this chart on what happens in a meltdown.)

By now, of course, it’s clear that there’s been a partial meltdown, and we’re all hoping that the situation can be brought under control and the radiation contained. Yet the impression lingers of, let us say, a failure to communicate. And it’s much worse for people in Japan, who are trying to sort through the conflicting information and monitoring a news media that doesn’t seem to be demanding answers. As my friend Alan Gleason, a translator, editor and jazz musician living in Tokyo, wrote on this site yesterday,

So far the most sobering and disturbing thing is the inability or unwillingness of government and power company spokesmen to give straight answers about what’s going on, as well as the TV stations’ unwillingness to press them on this…[It seems that] when a man-made disaster, or one exacerbated by human error, occurs, self-censorship kicks in to protect powerful interests.

One of those interests may be the utility itself, TEPCO. It is the world’s third-largest utility with a long and complicated relationship with General Electric Co. (GE built many of its plants, including the reactors we’re watching today, and on Monday offered its “emergency help” to the utility and the Japanese government). TEPCO also has a history of obfuscation and falsification when it comes to safety.

In 2007, for example, in a post entitled “Nuke Danger in Japan,” I reported on a major leak of radioactive fuel that occured at a TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata after an earthquake there. According to The Australian (July 25, 2007), 12 hours after the quake triggered a series of accidents at the plant, a senior Japanese government official hauled TEPCO’s president into his office “for a rare and humiliating verbal caning.” The official was “furious” because TEPCO management had “initially misled his officials — and not for the first time, either — about the extent of breakdowns at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear electricity-generating complex.” The paper continued:

The magnitude 6.8 quake 10 km offshore from the Honshu west coast plant caused subsidence of the main structure, ruptured water pipes, started a fire that took five hours to extinguish, and triggered small radioactive discharges into the atmosphere and sea.

Japan has had reactors shut and superficially damaged by earthquakes before, nuclear power stations have had safety failures before, and TEPCO management has been caught before covering up its plant problems. But this was the first time all three circumstances had coincided. This was the nearest thing Japan had seen to genpatsu-shinsai (a nuclear power station earthquake disaster).

Had the epicentre been 10km to the southwest and at magnitude 7, claims eminent seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi, Kashiwazaki City would have experienced the real thing — a nuclear plant emergency, possibly a damaged reactor, breaking out in the destruction and chaos of a population-centre earthquake.

That is essentially what is happening now at TEPCO’s Fukushima complex. But the 2007 incident also brought in the IAEA:

Within 24 hours, International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Mohamed ElBaradei had swished his own cane. He made Amari a polite but insistent ”offer” that the UN nuclear safeguards agency’s inspectors assist Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission with a ”fully transparent” review of the accident and measures needed to guard against a recurrence….This was the first time in El Baradei’s decade as chief of the agency — a term characterised by his boasts about the nuclear power industry’s excellent safety record post-Chernobyl 1986 — the IAEA had intervened so directly and publicly.

After the incident, Reuters commented:

Japan’s nuclear industry has been tarnished by cover-ups of accidents and fudged safety records. The flow of bad news this week, including TEPCO’s admission that the amount of radiation in water that leaked into the ocean was more than first estimated, has done nothing to ease concerns.”

The continuing credibility problems at TEPCO, and a little more about its history, were spelled out this past weekend by veteran Asia reporters Mark Magnier and Barbara Demick in the Los Angeles Times:

As many people here are well aware (TEPCO) has a history of not being forthcoming about nuclear safety issues, particularly those surrounding earthquake-related dangers. In 2003, all 17 of its nuclear plants were shut down temporarily after a scandal over falsified safety-inspection reports. It ran into trouble again in 2006, when it emerged that coolant-water data at two plants had been falsified in the 1980s.

TEPCO’s activities reached scandalous proportions in 2002, when an employee from GE revealed to the Japanese government that TEPCO had been falsifying its records of inspections of its nuclear power plants and hiding the facts for more than 10 years. According to a September 14, 2002, story in The Daily Yomiuri, Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper:

The case came to light only after a U.S. employee of a subsidiary of General Electric Co., who inspected nuclear reactors together with TEPCO engineers, tipped off the International Trade and Industry Ministry, the predecessor of the present Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, two years ago.

The Yomiuri also revealed that MITI itself had conspired with TEPCO to bury the information later revealed by the GE whistleblower.

Over the weekend, I began poking around in TEPCO’s website to find anything about the scandals. I found this rather interesting document, entitled “Lessons Learned from the TEPCO Nuclear Power Scandal.” It appears to be something that was required under a legal settlement between the company and the government, and spells out in detail the utility’s misconduct over the years. I found this passage particularly revealing, and quite apropos considering what’s happened over the last 48 hours at the Fukushima reactor:

Background to Cases of Misconduct

  • Nuclear engineers’ over-confidence of their nuclear knowlegee
  • The engineers’ conservative mentality to avoid reporting problems to the national government as long as they believed that safety was secured.

At a press conference today, Aileen Mioko Smith with Green Action in Kyoto stressed again the difficulty of getting straight information from the government and TEPCO. Hopefully, the company’s promises to improve its disclosure policies, as spelled out in its own document, will bear fruit over the days and weeks to come.

Download: Lessons Learned from the TEPCO Nuclear Power Scandal

UPDATE: TEPCO delayed its initial response to the Fukushima disaster due to “concerns over damaging valuable power assets and by initial passivity on the part of the government,” the Wall Street Journal reported March 19:

The plant’s operator—Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco—considered using seawater from the nearby coast to cool one of its six reactors at least as early as last Saturday morning, the day after the quake struck. But it didn’t do so until that evening, after the prime minister ordered it following an explosion at the facility. Tepco didn’t begin using seawater at other reactors until Sunday.

Tepco was reluctant to use seawater because it worried about hurting its long-term investment in the complex, say people involved with the efforts. Seawater, which can render a nuclear reactor permanently inoperable, now is at the center of efforts to keep the plant under control.

Tepco “hesitated because it tried to protect its assets,” said Akira Omoto, a former Tepco executive and a member of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, an official advisory body involved in the effort to tame the plant. Both Tepco and government officials had good reason not to use saltwater, Mr. Omoto added. Early on, nuclear fuel rods were still under cooling water and undamaged, he said, adding, “it’s understandable because injecting seawater into the fuel vessel renders it unusable.”

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