Japan's nuclear disaster and industry-government collusion: the price of compromised safeguards.

Science, technology, and life.
April 28 2011 8:26 AM

Nuclear Incest

Did industry-government collusion contribute to Japan's nuclear disaster?

Aerial view of the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. Click image to expand.
Fukushima nuclear power plant

As Japan struggles to regain control of its Fukushima Daiichi power plant, there's lots of talk about which technical safeguards the plant lacked and which should be required in future nuclear facilities. But a new report points to another kind of safeguard that failed: public institutions.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Nuclear power plants are designed for what the industry calls defense in depth: the inclusion of backup safeguards in case the primary safeguards fail. No single layer of protection should be trusted entirely.

The same is true of people. No power plant operator should be trusted to maintain the safety of its reactors. We need multiple layers of scrutiny—inspectors, regulators, independent nuclear experts—to double- and triple-check the operator's work.

These layers of scrutiny failed in Japan, according to a story in Wednesday's New York Times. The report, by Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson, details a web of collusion among Japanese regulators, politicians, and power companies. It's a sobering illustration of what can happen when institutions that should be checking one another merge into a complacent team.

Defense in depth, as described last year by the international Nuclear Energy Agency, involves

consecutive and independent levels of protection that would all have to fail before harmful effects could be caused to people or to the environment. If one level of protection or barrier were to fail, the subsequent level or barrier would be available. Defence in depth ensures that no single technical, human or organisational failure could lead to harmful effects. … The independent effectiveness of the different levels of defence is a necessary element of defence in depth. This is achieved through redundancy and diversity. … Operating systems ensure that plants are not allowed to operate unless a minimum number of diverse systems are available.

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The concept sounds terrific. But it doesn't work if the layers aren't truly independent. That's what happened at Fukushima, where safeguards that were supposed to be diverse—grid power supply, backup generators, batteries, pumps—were all taken out by the same chain of events.

The same thing can happen to layers of people who are supposed to police the nuclear industry. Their independence and diversity can turn out to be illusory. According to the Times, that's what happened in Japan.

Onishi and Belson describe a network of corrupting affiliations. Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is run by the ministry responsible for promoting nuclear power. The ministry's senior officials often go on to work for utility companies, including Tokyo Electric Power, which owns the Daiichi plant. Regulators who are supposed to "backstop" the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency rely on engineers from power companies to advise them. Inspectors aren't adequately trained to examine nuclear facilities. One political party ignores safety issues because it's beholden to business. The other party ignores safety issues because it's beholden to unions, which want the construction jobs. Academic critics of the industry suffer professionally because power companies and the government control funding of nuclear energy research.

The failure of these political safeguards may have contributed to the failure of the Daiichi plant's technical safeguards. Onishi and Belson cite three examples. First, regulators granted a 10-year extension to the plant's oldest reactor just before the catastrophic earthquake. Second, the plant's backup generators were inadequately protected from a tsunami. Third, when a whistle-blower warned Japanese regulators about a defect at the Daiichi plant, they exposed his identity to TEPCO, thereby crippling his career, and they left inspection of the problem to TEPCO.

The Japanese term for this nexus of collusion—the "nuclear power village"—sounds a lot like the U.S. military-industrial complex. We don't know yet what role it played in the Fukushima tragedy. But it's a reminder that diverse, independent, and mutually competing institutions are our best protection against calamity. They've preserved freedom in many countries, including ours, for centuries. They've reined in the worst of big business and the worst of big government. We need them now as we re-examine and revamp our energy policy. We need to build nuclear oversight systems the way we build power plants: with safeguards and backups, not trust.

(Readings I recommend:John Boyd at IEEE Spectrum's Tech Talk reports that a robot went into a Fukushima Daiichi reactor building Tuesday to check radiation levels and water leakage. Analiese Miller and Greg Laden warn that the watering necessary to cool the spent-fuel pools may cause them to collapse. Dave Lochbaum at All Things Nuclear says the United States has done "little to nothing" to address spent-fuel risks similar to Fukushima's. Paul Marks at New Scientist says Japan's backup generators don't have enough power to keep reactors cool if another tsunami hits. Geoff Brumfiel at Nature News  previews a post-Fukushima shakeup of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Discovery Channel has posted a teaser for its Fukushima documentary, which airs tonight.)

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