Japan's nuclear safety standards called flawed

February 15, 2012 - 9:35 AM
Japan Nuclear

Nuclear Safety Commission chairman Haruki Madarame speaks during an inquiry investigating the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant caused by the March 11 tsunami, at Parliament in Tokyo Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Madarame said Japan's regulations were flawed, outdated and below global standards and he apologized for their failure to provide better protection. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's nuclear safety chief said Wednesday the country's regulations are flawed, outdated and below global standards, and he apologized for their failure when a tsunami crippled one plant last year.

Haruki Madarame admitted Japanese safety requirements such as for tsunami and power losses were too loose and many officials have looked the other way and tried to avoid changes.

"I must admit that the nuclear safety guidelines that we have issued until now have various flaws," he said. "We've even said that we don't need to consider risks for massive tsunamis and lengthy power outages."

Madarame, who heads the Nuclear Safety Commission, was speaking at a parliament-sponsored inquiry investigating the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi last year.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and cooling systems at the plant, sending its three reactors into meltdowns and causing massive radiation leaks. More than 100,000 people around the plant relocated due to fears of radiation impact on their health.

Madarame said officials have never taken seriously the impact of power outages, assuming that the likelihood of hours-long blackouts in high-tech Japan would be low. He said they thought keeping backup generators would be enough, and never thought of the risk of placing them in the basement — the area most prone to seawater damage from tsunami. The destruction of the generators at Fukushima Dai-ichi left no method available to cool the reactor cores, which eventually melted down.

Japanese safety regulators have missed chances to make improvements when such steps were taken in other countries. For instance, the NSC's counterpart Nuclear Regulatory Commission required utilities to upgrade how they would handle power outages more than a decade ago. Japan also failed to respond to International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines to upgrade safety in case of severe plant damage and radioactive leaks.

"We ended up wasting our time looking for excuses that these measures are not needed in Japan," Madarame said.

The NSC, a panel of about 100 experts who provide nonbinding technical advice, has been criticized as toothless since the crisis. The unit, along with other safety and regulator bodies, including the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, will be reorganized and become part of a new nuclear regulatory agency under the Environment Ministry. Critics have long said that the placement of NISA under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — which promotes nuclear energy — has also contributed to lax supervision of the industry.

Such friendly relations between regulators and the industry often resulted in rubber-stamping of the minimum safety steps proposed by operators, and safety inspections are based on techniques "from 30 years ago," Madarame said.

In another revelation showing a lack of expertise among regulators, Nobuaki Terasaka, head of NISA until August, said he has no science or nuclear background and hardly participated in crisis management at the prime minister's office.

As a whole, NISA could not fully serve its expected role when it was most needed, he said.

"We lacked sufficient staffing of regulators with technical expertise who could operate in a crisis like that, which involved multiple reactors," Terasaka said. "When it comes to expertise, knowledge and skill, NISA is weaker than our U.S. counterparts."

Terasaka initially went over to the premier's office but retreated within hours to NISA, where no live teleconference or hotline was available, he said.

NISA has issued emergency safety guidelines requiring nuclear plants nationwide to improve readiness for disasters since Fukushima's, but Madarame urged NISA to fully review them because they are "all temporary measures."

His comment raises a question over the credibility of the ongoing "stress tests," a new set of safety requirement for idled reactors to startup, parliamentary probe panel chief Kiyoshi Kurokawa said after the inquiry.

Only three of Japan's 54 reactors are operating now. Authorities ordered all reactors shut down to undergo the special tests to check for their ability to withstand disasters like the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima crisis.