Lessons Not Learned

Tsunami waves inundate the Fukushima Daiichi NPP

The Mainichi Newspaper reported on September 6, 2012 that the Hokuriku Electric Power Company has refused a request by the Social Democratic Party leader for a visit to the Shika Nuclear Power Plant. A representative told the newspaper, “We determined that those who don't understand the necessity of nuclear plants are low on our priority list.”
International and domestic governments, regulatory agencies and power utilities have consistently boasted about the “lessons learned” from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant catastrophe, but this statement by the representative of Hokuriku Electric illustrates that perhaps nothing has been learned.
Who knew that a tsunami could topple protective barriers, and be large enough to flood a nuclear power plant and disable its backup power systems? Who knew that the preceding earthquake could knock out the main power supply and fatally damage the reactors even before the tsunami hit? Apparently, no one knew, if you listen to the excuses of the electric utilities in Japan. Their standard response, at least for the first few weeks after the meltdowns, was that the natural disaster was beyond all expectation and outside of all risks determined by scientific and historical knowledge.
However, these excuses soon became laughable, as it was revealed that people within Japan’s nuclear village had simply refused to listen to critics and educate themselves about facts in other fields of inquiry. It turned out that many people knew about the high probability of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome. They warned their fellow citizens for decades and no one listened. The inescapable conclusion, the lesson to be learned, is that 160,000 evacuees would still be in their homes, TEPCO would still be a financially viable company, and the global nuclear industry would have a much better reputation if the nuclear village had listened to its most despised critics – the kinds of people who “don’t understand the necessity of nuclear power plants.” 
The statement by the Hokuriku Electric representative shows precisely the rigid, uncreative mentality that led to disaster. A wiser person would refrain from stating that there is a “necessity of nuclear power” because what is a necessity is a value judgment to be determined by others. Judgments about necessity depend on who is getting the benefits and who is paying the costs. People who operate nuclear power plants have many responsibilities, but the promotion of specific energy policy for the nation is not one of them.
Hokuriku Electric, like TEPCO, has a disgraceful safety record that calls for a little more humility when requests for visits come from critics. There was a criticality incident at the Shika plant in 1999, but it was covered up until 2007. Reactor 1 was shut down for two years, and the subsequent investigation by the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission concluded that the cause was cost-cutting pressures on staff. Since the Fukushima disaster, all reactors have been shut down while larger seawalls are built and seismic safety is reassessed. According to existing rules about building nuclear reactors on active fault lines, the plant may have to be shut down permanently because new evidence shows that a fault line previously thought to be inactive is now more likely to be active.
TEPCO shows that it too has learned nothing from its mistakes. No matter how many times critics point out the blatant failure to take account of the historical record of tsunami height in the Pacific Rim, TEPCO still stood by its past assessments as recently as April 2012 in a report titled The scale of the tsunami far exceeded all previously held expectations and knowledge. The report concedes that the giant Jogan tsunami of 869 was higher than the design basis of Fukushima NPP, but it splits hairs by noting that studies of this tsunami’s deposits showed a large wave hit the Sendai Plain and the Ishinomaki Plain, and a four-meter wave did hit in Northern Fukushima, but there were no tsunami deposits in the area of the Fukushima NPP. Thus, TEPCO wants to say that because the monster tsunami of 1,200 years ago did massive damage only a hundred kilometers north of Fukushima, it was reasonable to conclude that the next monster tsunami would strike with exactly the same pattern. The question how could we have known? invites the question how could a person of modest intelligence not have known?
If it was too difficult for planners in Japan’s nuclear village to think all the way back to the year 869, they could have checked Wikipedia to get a rough idea of tsunami waves that have occurred recently in the Pacific Rim:

1964, Alaska, 30 m
1993, Hokkaido, 30 m
1998, New Guinea, 15 m
2004, Indian Ocean, 33 m
2007, Solomon Islands, 12 m
2009, Samoa, 14 m
2011, Northeastern Japan, 10-30 m

Later, in 2002, the JSCE published a guideline called the "Tsunami Assessment Method for Nuclear Power Plants in Japan" based on the ongoing technological progress. In this assessment, simulation technology was applied and the results were assumed to be more conservative. Based on this guideline, TEPCO reevaluated the tsunami height, which was assessed to be approx. 6 m. In response to the results, TEPCO has voluntarily implemented measures while reporting them to the government. This tsunami evaluation technology has been the standard method for domestic nuclear power plants up to the time of the accident and is also used for assessing tsunamis at nuclear power plants all around Japan to report to the government including the ones located along the Pacific coastline.
Although TEPCO believed that the nuclear power plant safeguards put in place were sufficient per this standard, we deeply regret the accident that occurred on March 11th.

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