Believers pray for victims of the March 11 massive earthquake and tsunami at a memorial in Natori, Miyagi prefecture on March 8, 2012. The earthquake-tsunami disaster, concentrated in the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, left more than 19,000 people dead or missing.
A year after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, international experts have come to a stark conclusion: the resulting meltdown did not have to happen.
Adherence to known international safety standards would have made the plant’s six reactors far less likely to suffer the series of equipment losses that left operators helpless as four units destroyed themselves, says a new report by Mark Hibbs and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The Fukushima accident does not reveal a previously unknown fatal flaw associated with nuclear power,” the report concludes.
They conclude the tsunami was able to wreak massive damage largely due to human and organizational failures that were identifiable in advance. “The plant would have withstood the tsunami had its design previously been upgraded in accordance with state-of-the-art safety approaches,” the report said.
Measures adopted by other nuclear operators after a nearly disastrous flood at France’s Blayais nuclear station in 1999 alone would have made Fukushima significantly less vulnerable, they said. Backup power supplies and controls would have been moved to higher ground, and/or inside watertight compartments, and key pumps would have been protected from seawater intrusion.
Instead, that equipment was unprotected from flooding and the tsunami disabled virtually all of it.
A Fatal Lack of Independence
Acton and Hibbs said one key way the Japanese system differs from international standards is that its regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, is not independent from other agencies promoting nuclear power or from industry. Regulatory independence is considered a must by most safety experts.
The Carnegie study says Japanese regulators and operators also focused so much on earthquake risks that they essentially ignored other natural threats. Officials were also resistant to taking outside advice, and many believed an accident like Fukushima was “simply impossible.” The study also notes that Japan’s hierarchical culture has “low tolerance” for anyone challenging authority.
Getting regulators and operators worldwide to accept and work to international safety standards has been a goal for the nuclear industry since the 1986 Chernobyl accident. That accident, like Three Mile Island-2 in 1979, was also considered at heart the product of human errors and not something doomed to happen by faulty technology.
After 1986, international organizations were formed of both regulators and operators to exchange information and best practices worldwide. But everything done was officially voluntarily, with no nation willing to allow outsiders to police its nuclear operations.
A Joined-Up Approach Proposed
That issue remains a major sticking point, says a World Energy Council review of nuclear response since Fukushima. While nations agree there should be strong international standards, they reject any international enforcement mechanism, citing national sovereignty concerns.
The WEC report proposes establishing a new international organization to draw up nuclear safety standards, and wants the organization empowered to “verify national adherence.”
The organization would work with national nuclear safety agencies to draw up compatible national regulations, share “good practices in human resource management” including training, and work with the agencies to prepare to respond to any nuclear incidents in the region.
But WEC illustrated the difficulties facing these ideas by noting that its members don’t agree on all the recommendations, and saying “a vigorous discussion must still be held.”
See all of Breaking Energy’s coverage of the anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster under the tag “Fukushima Anniversary“.