PR-first approach turns Fukushima safety into a farce

PR-first approach turns Fukushima safety into a farce

It was a stunning contortion of logic, performed with such a straight face that at first I thought Junichi Matsumoto was having me on.

"Yes, taking extra safety measures [at Fukushima] would have been interpreted as Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Company] being worried about a tsunami," said the senior Tepco official. "If we had built seawalls in front of the plant it would've made [local residents] worry."

I had just confronted Mr Matsumoto with the claim that Tepco had known years before the tsunami of 2011 that huge waves could strike the coast on which its Fukushima nuclear plant sat.

Simulations seen by some Tepco personnel had shown that waves as high as 15.7 metres could be spawned by a powerful offshore earthquake.

The simulations were bang on. On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, that's exactly what happened _ a magnitude-9 tremor sent a 15m monster barrelling into the Fukushima nuclear plant, flooding reactor buildings, knocking out power and triggering catastrophic meltdowns.

But despite warnings from seismologists and despite the simulations, Japan's largest nuclear operator had not taken appropriate preventative measures to beef up tsunami defences in front of Fukushima's six reactors.

And here was one of Tepco's top brass explaining to me with his poker face that if they'd acted on the warnings it would have spooked the locals living nearby.

Using the sort of convoluted wordplay employed by the scheming Sir Humphrey Appleby, Mr Matsumoto appeared to be conceding that Tepco had sat on its hands. In other words, the Fukushima nuclear disaster might have been preventable. Perhaps it was a man-made cataclysm, and no act of nature.

I have learned through my many dealings with Tepco that this is a company rooted deep in denial. It is a firm that has apparently put public relations before disaster planning. It is a corporation that has seemingly learned little from the world's worst nuclear disaster in a quarter of a century.

Two and a half years on from the triple meltdowns at Fukushima, a depressingly familiar pattern has developed. This is a tale trapped in an endless loop of farce, its plots both improbable and alarming. Here is how it seems to play out.

In the first act we are confronted with outright denial. The Fukushima plant is stable, the reactors are under control. There is no problem.

In the second act a problem is exposed in all its radioactive glory _ it could be a nuclear water leak, or contaminated groundwater leeching into the Pacific, or a power failure to pools cooling thousands of toxic fuel rods, or mysterious steam oozing from a shattered reactor building (all have happened).

In the final act, a line of sober-faced Tepco officials fills the stage. They choreograph their bows, and the dialogue begins.

"We apologise again for causing anxiety among the public."

Tepco General Manager Masayuki Ono has apologised a lot lately. Tepco's trust rating among the Japanese public had already dropped through the floor, like the melted fuel in one of its doomed reactors. It wasn't helped by Tepco's repeated denials that radioactive groundwater was seeping into the sea.

Those denials were eventually challenged by Japan's atomic watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). With unprecedented candour, the NRA's chief, Shunichi Tanaka, told reporters he believed the Fukushima plant had been leaking contaminated water into the Pacific since the start of the crisis in 2011.

Confronted with this stunning slap in the face by the nuclear regulator, Tepco revealed that it had known that at least 300 tonnes of radioactive groundwater was flowing from the plant into its harbour next door every day.

This toxic soup contained substances that sounded like they were straight out of a Superman comic _ tritium, caesium-134, caesium-137, and strontium-90. Strontium has a half-life of about 29 years, and is known as a "bone-seeker" because it replaces calcium in bones, often causing cancer.

The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety estimates that the Fukushima meltdowns caused the largest single nuclear contamination of the ocean in history.

But Tepco said there was nothing to worry about the contamination being dispersed through the Pacific. It would have minimal impact. Few in Japan believed the company's spin.

Taking the public pulse after Tepco's latest PR disaster, Japan's government decided to act. Everyone waited for the big announcement that Tepco would be sidelined, that the government would send in its own experts, maybe even international teams of nuclear accident specialists.

An announcement came _ the government would pump more money in to help Tepco pump more radioactive water out of the ground. The company would remain in charge.

Then this week, Groundhog Day.

"We'd like to apologise for the concern we've caused people due to this problem," said Tepco's Masayuki Ono [this week]. The conga line of officials had shuffled back on stage to try to plug the latest crisis at Fukushima _ yet another radioactive leak.

But this would turn out to be the worst leak since the meltdowns two-and-a-half years ago. One of the giant tanks storing highly contaminated water had sprung a leak.

Despite regular inspections, no one had seen the puddles of water shimmering on the ground around the faulty tank. When they finally did notice these pools, someone tested for radiation.

The reading shot off the scale _ 100 millisieverts an hour.

"One-hundred millisieverts an hour is a radiation level strong enough to give someone a five-year dose of radiation within one hour," said Mr Ono.

In other words, if you stood half-a-metre away from one of these puddles for one hour you would be exposed to five times the annual allowable dose for an international nuclear worker. If you stood there for 10 hours you'd develop radiation sickness with symptoms such as a drop in white blood cells and nausea.

As Michiaki Furukawa, a nuclear chemist, said: "This is a huge amount of radiation. The situation is getting worse."

At the start of this crisis, it was keeping water out of the Fukushima plant that was Tepco's major failing. Now, it is keeping water in. What next in this endless loop of black farce?


Mark Willacy is a double winner of Australia's highest journalist award _ the Walkley _ for coverage of the 2003 Iraq war and the Fukushima meltdown. He is the author of 'Fukushima' (Pan Macmillan, 2013).

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