Sat, Mar 19, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Bungling, cover-ups define Japanese nuclear power industry

By Yuri Kageyama  /  AP, TOKYO

Behind Japan’s escalating nuclear crisis sits a scandal-ridden energy industry in a comfy relationship with government regulators often willing to overlook safety lapses.

Leaks of radioactive steam and workers contaminated with radiation are just part of the disturbing catalogue of accidents that have occurred over the years and been belatedly reported to the public, if at all.

In one case, workers hand-mixed uranium in stainless steel buckets, instead of processing by machine, so the fuel could be reused, exposing hundreds of workers to radiation. Two later died.

“Everything is a secret,” said Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan. “There’s not enough transparency in the industry.”

Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following Friday’s 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami.

In 1989, Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: Edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), but nothing happened. He decided to go public in 2000.

Three TEPCO executives lost their jobs.

The legacy of scandals and cover-ups over Japan’s half-century reliance on nuclear power has strained its credibility with the public. That mistrust has been renewed this past week with the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. No evidence has emerged of officials hiding information in this catastrophe. However, the vagueness and scarcity of details offered by the government and TEPCO — and news that seems to grow worse each day — are fueling public anger and frustration.

“I can’t believe them,” said Taketo Kuga, a cab driver in Tokyo, where low levels of radiation were observed on Tuesday, despite being 220km away from the faulty plant.

Kuga has been busy lately driving to airports and train stations people eager to get out and flee southward. It unsettles him that the information about radiation is all over the Internet, hours before officials make their announcements.

“I don’t feel safe,” he said.

TEPCO official Takeshi Makigami says experts are doing their utmost to get the reactors under control.

“We are doing all that is possible,” he told reporters.

Worried that over-dependence on imported oil could undermine Japan’s humming economy, the government threw its support into nuclear power, and the industry boomed in profile and influence. The country has 54 nuclear plants, which provide 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs, is building two more and studying proposals for 12 more plants.

Before Friday’s earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima crisis and sent the economy reeling, Japan’s 11 utility companies, many of them nuclear plant operators, were worth US$139 billion on the stock market.

TEPCO — the utility that supplies power for Japan’s capital and biggest city — accounted for nearly a third of that market capitalization, though its shares have been battered since the disasters, falling 65 percent over the past week to ¥759 on Thursday. Last month, it got a boost from the government, which renewed authorization for TEPCO to operate Fukushima Dai-ichi’s 40-year-old Unit 1 reactor for another 10 years.

With such strong government support and a culture that ordinarily frowns upon dissent, regulators tend not to push for rigorous safety, said Amory Lovins, an expert on energy policy and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

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