IAEA: Japan Underestimated Risk to Nuclear Facility

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The IAEA has released a preliminary report of its review of Japan’s handling of its nuclear crisis, concluding that regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) underestimated the risk a severe tsunami posed to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The UN agency also noted that the plant’s backup power systems were not robust enough to withstand a disaster of the scale of March 11, and suggested, more broadly, the regulatory structure of Japan’s nuclear industry lacked independence.

Japan’s Nuclear and Safety Agency (NISA), which answers to the Trade Ministry, has been criticized for not enforcing TEPCO’s take appropriate emergency safety precautions ahead of the disaster. Experts had advised that the Fukushima plant could only withstand waves of up to 5.7 meters; the highest tsunami waves on March 11 are believed to be up to 15 meters. Bloomberg quoted Goshi Hosono, a special adviser to PM Naoto Kan, as saying a “reorganization of Japan’s atomic regulators is ‘unavoidable.’” after the report was released.

The three-page report comes a week into the global nuclear body’s 10-day mission to review events since a 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s northeast coast, causing a tsunami that critically damaged the Fukushima power plant. The IAEA itself has come under criticism for its lack of leadership in responding to the crisis; many in the field have argued the agency should have gotten more experts on the ground in Japan sooner. As former senior IAEA official Olli Heinonen told Reuters: “While the IAEA has stated that it was hampered by lack of official information from Japan [in the early days of the disaster], this has nonetheless prompted analysts to question the efficacy of the agency… [The accident] should be a wake-up call to re-evaluate and strengthen the role of the IAEA.”

The agency’s full report will be released at a conference in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered, in late June.

What the agency does have to say about Japan’s response isn’t all bad. The group praised the government for its openness in dealing with the crisis — a point on which many residents living around the stricken plant may beg to differ — and also lauded the on-site response of TEPCO’s staff, working under “exceptional circumstances,” as “exemplary.”

The IAEA team, which included members from Russia, China, the U.S. and France, said it released the early version of the report to help the Japanese government to address the continuing crisis as soon as possible. The team has already visited three nuclear plants in Japan, including Fukushima. After the visits, and meeting with regulatory bodies in Japan, the 18-member team suggested that Japan revise its timetable for handling the disaster.

It also urged the government to look into the health and safety of workers at the plant, echoing a slap on the wrist issued yesterday by the health ministry. The ministry determined that TEPCO and Kandenko, an electric engineering company whose employees were also working on site at Fukushima, allowed some workers to operate at the plant without dosimeters in the early days of the crisis, which is against Japanese law. The government also found that several female employees were exposed to illegal doses of radiation, that in some cases required protective gear was not enforced, and that at least two workers exposed to high levels of radiation did not take potassium iodide pills to limit the effects of exposure as instructed.