Amid Japan’s widening nuclear crisis, we’re learning that regulation of the energy industry in that country is more like the United States than we may have thought – including issuing permits in the face of safety warnings, regulators who are “too cozy” with the industry they regulate and an overall culture of profit over people and the environment. It’s a dangerous culture that can reap catastrophic results: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials announced today that radiation levels are 1,600 times normal, 20 kilometers from Fukushima plant.
The New York Times is reporting that Japanese regulators granted a 10-year license extension for the “oldest of the six reactors” at the Fukushima Daiichi power station despite serious safety issues. It turns out the reactor in question had cracks that “…made the engines vulnerable to corrosion from seawater and rainwater.” It’s unclear exactly what role, if any, those weaknesses played in whatever is happening now. But there is no doubt that it points to a willingness to assume unnecessary risks.
The lax regulatory culture exposed by the crisis is bringing the sort of reports we see in virtually any look at the BP oil spill, including the NYT reporting the following:
…the decision to extend the reactor’s life, and the inspection failures at all six reactors, highlight what critics describe as unhealthy ties between power plant operators and the Japanese regulators that oversee them… [a] committee, which convened six times to review findings gathered during inspections of the No. 1 unit at the power station, found that Tokyo Electric had met all required protections from earthquakes. Inspectors, however, had spent just three days inspecting the No. 1 unit, a period that industry experts say was far too brief because assessing the earthquake risk to a nuclear plant is one of the most complex engineering problems in the world.
The NYT cites Eisaku Sato, a former governor of Fukushima Prefecture explaining that “communities hosting the nuclear plants” did not learn about reported cracks in the units until more than two years after a whistle-blower reported the problems.
Again from the NYT: “An organization that is inherently untrustworthy is charged with ensuring the safety of Japan’s nuclear plants,” said Mr. Sato, governor from 1988 to 2006. “So the problem is not limited to Tokyo Electric, which has a long history of cover-ups, but it’s the whole system that is flawed. That’s frightening.”
Just as with the United States regulatory agencies, Mr. Sato and others say part of the problem is “…a conflict of interest that he said essentially stripped the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of its effectiveness. The agency, which is supposed to act as a watchdog, is under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has a general policy of encouraging the development of Japan’s nuclear industry.”
Clearly, the crisis in Japan illustrates that we have a grave global energy-production problem, and that’s why we’re seeing so many nations take a step back from their nuclear efforts right now. Granted, the United States is not one of those nations – but as this disaster continues to unfold in Asia, we’ll see if that holds.
Here’s the telling NYT story: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/asia/22nuclear.html?_r=1&hp
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