The catastrophic triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in March 2011 was “a warning to the world” about the hazards of nuclear power and contained lessons for the British government as it plans a new generation of nuclear power stations, the man with overall responsibility for the operation in Japan has told the Guardian.
Speaking at his Tokyo corporate headquarters, Naomi Hirose, president of the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which runs the stricken Fukushima plant, said Britain’s nuclear managers “should be prepared for the worst” in order to avoid repeating Japan’s traumatic experience.
“We tried to persuade people that nuclear power is 100 percent safe. That was easy for both sides. Our side explains how safe nuclear power is. The other side is the people who listen and for them it is easy to hear OK, it’s safe, sure, why not?” he said. “But we have to explain, no matter how small a possibility, what if this [safety] barrier is broken? We have to prepare a plan if something happens... It is easy to say this is almost perfect so we don’t have to worry about it. However, we have to keep thinking: What if...”
British ministers recently agreed a commercial deal with the French state-owned energy company EDF Energy to build the UK’s first new nuclear reactor in a generation at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The agreement included the UK government providing accident insurance.
TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ichi facility on the coast about 200km northeast of Tokyo, comprising six nuclear reactors, was hit by a giant tsunami with waves peaking at 17m high caused by the Great East Japan earthquake on March 11, 2011. In what quickly became one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, operators lost control of the plant when the power supply, including emergency backup, failed amid massive flooding. As cooling systems malfunctioned, reactors 1, 2 and 3 suffered meltdowns.
Reactor 4 was closed for routine maintenance at the time. However, one of several hydrogen explosions blew the walls and roof off the reactor building. This week a delicate and lengthy operation to remove fuel rods from that reactor began.
Radiation leakage following the explosions forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the surrounding area. An exclusion zone roughly 18km by 30km remains in force around the plant two-and-a-half years later. The entire facility is now being decommissioned, but TEPCO’s clean-up, which has been strongly criticized by environmentalists, is expected to take up to 40 years.
Hirose said that although the situation facing Fukushima Dai-ichi on March 11 was exceptional, measures could have been adopted in advance that might have mitigated the impact of the disaster. TEPCO was at fault for failing to take these steps, he said.
“After I became president [in 2012], we formed a nuclear safety review committee. We focused mainly on what we could do, what we could learn. We had a lot of data by then. Three other reports, one from the Diet [Japan’s parliament], one from government. We had a lot of information. TEPCO’s own report, too. We concluded that we should have avoided that catastrophic accident, and we could have. We could see what we should have done,” Hirose said.
Preventative measures included fitting waterproof seals on all the doors in the reactor building, or placing an electricity-generating turbine on the facility’s roof, where the water might not have reached it. In addition, wrong assumptions were made, he said.