By: Nicholas Newman
Failing to make the right decision is easy to do. Regrettably, despite years of technological progress and experience, governments and energy companies continue to make such mistakes. Nevertheless, due to the increasing scale of investment and environmental hazards that the industry faces, the world energy leadership needs to do better than it has in the past.
It is clear those events at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have as much to do with bad decision-making by the country’s energy leadership as it has to do with the massive sea quake that caused a tidal wave to hit the doomed nuclear power station. Examining the factors that contributed to the poor decision-making that led to disaster in Japan last year, one comes to the conclusion that the events transpired could have been substantially mitigated or even avoided by the country’s energy leadership.
Here are some of the reasons that contributed to Japan’s unpreparedness for such a nuclear crisis and surprising negligence of nuclear power plant safety standards. These factors that contributed to the Fukushima incident range from internee sign fighting between the country’s government agencies (Ministry of Environment and its two regulatory agencies the Nuclear Safety Commission and Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) as well as the plant’s owners Tokyo Electric Power Co. Nor did it help that the power plant’s operator had been found to have ignored safety advice on several occasion from both domestic and international nuclear professionals such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It is clear from government reports that the leaderships of various stakeholders in the industry, including Japan’s regulatory agencies and nuclear power station operator TEPCO made serious errors which would have been avoided if the organisational culture was more accountable and open to inspection to not only Japan’s voters, but also the international community at large.
For instance, there are several documented examples of the national regulatory agencies ignoring the advice of such world agencies such as the IAEA. Reports suggest that the regulatory system was suffering from turf wars and intra-agency rivalries between regulatory agencies and departments of government ministries.
Nor did it help that TEPCO falsified safety records and ignored the advice given to it by both the domestic regulators and the International energy agency revealed in a report by Japan’s Independent Investigation Commission. In this report, it was revealed that Japanese electric power companies had since 1980, been unwilling to cooperate with the IAEA ‘s operational safety review of the country’s power plants. This review known as the Operational Safety Review Team (OSART), is where a team of experts conduct an in-depth review of operational safety performance at a nuclear power plant by checking the factors affecting safety management and personal performance.
In 1992, this operational safety review of Fukushima made a number of recommendations which Tokyo Electric Power Co, subsequently dismissed. In 2002, it was revealed that TEPCO had falsified 29 cases of safety repair records regarding cracks found at several of its nuclear reactors, including those at Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1980s and 90s. Despite this, the power company declined the offer by the IAEA to institute a fact-finding process to improve safety at the plant concerned. It was announced by the Chief Executive at TEPCO, that the proposed regulations were unrealistically strict and not in accordance with actual operational requirements.
Nor did it help that the entire nuclear community of the country was suffering from isolationist and secrecy tendencies, which were not helped by delusions that the country’s nuclear power sector was the best regulated, most advanced and managed industry in the world. The perception amongst many Japanese nuclear professionals was there was no need for Japan to learn from the rest of the world. In a sense Japan’s nuclear community was suffering from classic Galapagos Island syndrome symptoms.
Much to the surprise of these professionals the events at Fukushima were a wake-up call; it became clear from various investigations that Japan’s nuclear power sector was rotten to the core. It became clear that the industry was totally unprepared for the crisis when it occurred and was not able to provide solutions to such a crisis. It did not help that many of those civil servants working in nuclear regulation and safety management, did not have the opportunity to develop long-term expertise in the subject, because of the practice of regularly rotating civil servants to other government ministries. In addition, it did not help that findings found that the regulators were not truly independent of the power companies they were supervising.
Unfortunately, breaking out of the Galapagos syndrome for Japan’s nuclear sector is going to prove a hard task. Japan will need the help of the international community to create a new decision making energy leadership culture so that it equips it with the tools to avoid such complacency and a repeat of such disastrous mistakes. There are plans to establish a new, powerful nuclear safety agency this summer that will replace the old agencies and ministerial departments. Unfortunately, many of the new staff for this new agency will come from the failed organisations that contributed to Japan’s nuclear disaster.
However, perhaps the best way to revolutionise Japan’s nuclear community is if it imports new leadership and experts from abroad, until Japan has trained up the necessary recruits in the standards of the world nuclear community. Unfortunately, foreign CEO’s leading Japanese companies are rare and tend only to stay a short time due to inherent organisational resistance to change. In addition, Japan, the country finds very difficult to change its organisational culture, given the extremely conservative, traditional nature of its society. This is despite its appearance as one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. This can be seen by its failure to implement the radical changes required to break the country out of economic stagnation in recent years.
Japan’s government wants to restart two nuclear plants to avert summer power shortages this summer, but public skepticism of nuclear safety and the industry remains high. Before March 2011, Japan depended for 30% of its power from nuclear power plants. Unless Japan can make the necessary changes it is unlikely there will be public support for the country’s nuclear power stations to start operating again. Instead the country’s energy leadership will have to continue to depend on expensive renewables and imports of gas from Australia to fuel its power sector in order to maintain energy security.