(Mainichi Japan) April 25, 2011
How did Japan's nuclear industry become so arrogant?


What has stood out at the countless press conferences by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) of Japan that I've attended in covering the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, is the rampant use of cliches such as "unanticipated state of affairs" and "unprecedented natural disaster."

The excuses made by the organizations involved go to show that so-called nuclear power experts have no intention to self reflect or admit their shortcomings.
It was this self-righteousness -- evidenced over the years in the industry's suppression of unfavorable warnings and criticisms, as well as in their imposition of the claim that the safety of nuclear energy was self evident -- that lay down the groundwork for the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.


At press conferences, TEPCO officials repeatedly express their "deep apologies" for the trouble caused to the Japanese people. However, as soon as reporters' questions turn to the actual safety of nuclear power stations -- about which they had long boasted a multilayered safety system referred to as "defense in depth" -- they begin to act coolly. Their speech may feign civility, but they never admit to any wrongdoing and merely keep insisting the righteousness of their own claims. When particularly unflattering questions are posed to them, some TEPCO executives glower at the reporters who dared to ask and give only a brusque response.

Video footage of these press conferences, accessible via television broadcasts and the Internet, combined with disappointment with the government for its mishandling of the disaster, has fed the public's skepticism about the reliability and honesty of industry and political leaders.

Between 2002 and 2005, I was posted to the Fukui Prefecture city of Tsuruga, which hosts 15 nuclear reactors along Wakasa Bay. The area is dubbed Genpatsu Ginza (Nuclear Ginza) -- after the upscale Tokyo shopping district that is home to many shops and department stores -- for the its abundance of nuclear power plants, and a lot of the bureau's important reporting has concerned the nuclear power plants.

The many nuclear power engineers and researchers I met while based in Tsuruga did not leave a good impression on me. They generally did not provide sufficient answers to questions that could put them and nuclear energy in a negative light, and were arrogant enough to turn a deaf ear to any criticism that may be aimed at them.

When the Kanazawa branch of the Nagoya High Court handed down a ruling in January 2003 nullifying permission that had previously been given for the construction of the prototype Monju fast breeder reactor (FBR), electrical power companies and researchers involved in the power industry were up in arms. At a debate about the court ruling, a university professor who was a proponent of nuclear energy employed his knowledge of specialized terminology to talk down an opposition-party Diet member. Later on, I witnessed the professor and some cronies smirk in the corner of the room as they muttered, "Take that, you amateurs."

Several years ago, a regional television broadcaster that featured a researcher critical of nuclear energy in a documentary drew strong protest from a local utility firm, which argued that the show was based on a misunderstanding of nuclear energy. Although the program did not directly criticize the utility firm, the broadcaster was unable to ignore the claims of the company, one of its major sponsors. It was made to promise to dispatch reporters to nuclear power plants on a regular basis.

An executive at the power company whom I interviewed about the case said, "An understanding of how safe nuclear power stations are was lacking. What we wanted was repentance (from the broadcaster)." TEPCO officials that I've recently been observing at press conferences remind me of that pompous power company executive.


So how did the industry become what it is now?

Tetsunari Iida, a former nuclear engineer who currently heads the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, says that the industry is dominated by a closely-knit nuclear establishment. Those who graduate from universities and graduate from schools with degrees in nuclear power engineering go on to work at power companies, energy-related manufacturers, or municipalities that host nuclear power stations. Everything comes down to personal networks, and who the graduating students go on to work for is largely influenced by the connections and interests of the students' professors. Regardless of whether the employers are public or private organizations, the newly inducted engineers are raised to become full-fledged members of the nuclear establishment.

Accidents involving nuclear power plants are widely covered by the press, and are subject to intense criticism from citizens' groups. Because the nuclear establishment takes on a victim mentality when subjected to such pressure, it one-sidedly labels criticism from opponents as "opinions of mere laypersons," further reinforcing its self-righteous opinion of itself as the experts.

Nuclear safety regulation in Japan is ostensibly covered under a "double-check" system, but in practice, the system has not functioned sufficiently. Since both those in a position to be checked and those in a position to do the checking come from the same establishment, they are motivated to take action that will protect their common interests. As for NISA, there's a fundamental structural problem in that it is but an arm of METI, the government ministry in charge of promoting nuclear power generation.

A comparison of the agencies overseeing nuclear energy in Japan and the U.S., respectively, is also telling. While the U.S. agency is called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), its Japanese counterpart is called the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The conclusion we can reach from this is that by focusing so much on promoting the "safety" of nuclear energy, "regulation" and "supervision" have been left on the back burner.

The ongoing disaster in Fukushima has finally built momentum behind a discussion to split NISA from METI. There is no question that such a measure is necessary, but mere reshuffling cannot change the fundamental nature of those involved.

We are guilty of having relegated -- up until now -- the issue of nuclear energy as a world away, and a field best left to "experts" in the nuclear establishment. But the still unfolding crisis has made us painfully aware how closely linked nuclear energy is to our lives, from concerns over radiation exposure to power shortages. We no longer have the choice to remain apathetic. (By Kosuke Hino, Osaka City News Department)

毎日新聞 2011年4月21日 東京朝刊

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