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Nuclear plant operator Tepco admits Fukushima crisis could have been avoided

10 December 2012

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said in a statement on October 12 that it knew safety improvements were needed before last year's tsunami triggered three meltdowns, but it had feared the political, economic and legal consequences of implementing them.

Tepco staff inspecting the Fukushima Dai-ichi site
Tepco staff inspecting the Fukushima Dai-ichi site

"When looking back on the accident, the problem was that preparations were not made in advance," Tepco's internal reform task force, led by company President Naomi Hirose, said in the statement.

"Could necessary measures have been taken with previous tsunami evaluations? It was possible to take action", the task force said.

Tepco could have mitigated the impact of the accident if it had diversified power and cooling systems by paying closer attention to international standards and recommendations, the statement said. The company also should have trained employees with practical crisis management skills rather than conduct obligatory drills as a formality, it said.

The admissions mark a major change of position for the utility, which had defended its preparedness and crisis management since the March 2011 tsunami. The disaster knocked out power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, leading to the meltdowns, which forced the evacuation of 150,000 residents and will take decades to clean up.

The statement was released after Tepco held its first internal reform committee meeting, led by former US nuclear regulatory chief Dale Klein. His five-member committee oversees the task force's reform plans.

"It's very important for Tepco to recognise the needs to reform and the committee is very anxious to facilitate the reform necessary for Tepco to become a world-class company," Klein told a news conference. "The committee's goal is to ensure that TEPCO develops practices and procedures so an accident like this will never happen again."

Klein said individual workers at the plant would be expected to challenge the pervading culture of complacency over safety. "The challenge that Tepco will have is establishing a culture so that every individual understands they are responsible for safety," he said.

The report noted that Tepco had not made any safety improvements to the Fukushima Daiichi plant since 2002, and had dismissed the possibility of it being hit by a massive tsunami, even though it could not produce supporting data.

Despite records indicating a major tsunami had once hit off Japan's northern coast, Tepco took the most optimistic view of the risk and insisted that its 5.7-metre-high seawall was good enough. The tsunami that struck Fukushima Dai-ichi was more than twice that height.

Japan announced it would end its reliance on nuclear energy, although it has since dropped its 2040 deadline to phase out atomic power.

Tepco has been forced to reform its management and operations after the government saved it from collapse in May, in effect nationalising it with a one-trillion-yen bailout.

Despite Japan's plan to phase out nuclear power, Tepco's 10-year business plan includes the need to restart reactors that had been shut down post-Fukushima as a precaution, beginning with those at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in northern Japan.

But the company denied that its admission of culpability and reform efforts were intended to mollify the public ahead of a quick return to nuclear power generation.

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