Japanese government panel: Nuclear plant operator still stumbling

By Mari Yamaguchi

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, left, shakes hands with Yotaro Hatamura, chairperson of the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station of Tokyo Electric Power Co. after receiving the final report by the committee on the accident from Hatamura following the committee meeting in Tokyo Monday, July 23, 2012. Experts investigating Japan's nuclear disaster said Monday that the operator of the crippled plant continues to drag its feet in investigations and has tried to understate the true amount of damage at the complex. The report, by the government-appointed panel, is the latest of several to fault TEPCO and the government for doing too little to protect the Fukushima plant from the massive earthquake and tsunami that set off three meltdowns there in the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Shizuo Kambayashi, Associated Press

TOKYO — The operator of Japan's crippled nuclear power plant is still stumbling in its handling of the disaster 16 months later, by dragging its feet in investigations and trying to understate the true damage at the complex, investigators said Monday.

The report by a government-appointed panel is among several that have faulted Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government for doing too little to protect the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant from the earthquake and tsunami that hit it in March 2011, and for mishandling the response when the damage set off three reactor meltdowns in the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

The investigators said the utility has yet to address problems within its own culture that contributed to its failings in the crisis, including employees "not fully trained to think for themselves."

"We still don't perceive much enthusiasm in the accident investigation from" the company, the report said. "TEPCO must take our findings sincerely and resolve the problems to achieve a higher level of safety culture across the company."

The panel said TEPCO covered up unfavorable data in a computer analysis attempting to measure the extent of damage inside the reactors earlier this year. It said TEPCO officials acknowledged the simulation was inadequate, but they have yet to make another attempt.

In interviews with panel members, employees of TEPCO's nuclear department demonstrated expertise in emergency equipment, but many failed to speak up when it was most needed during the crisis, the report said.

For instance, some employees were aware that water gauges attached to containment vessels were likely broken and their measurements unreliable. But none of them raised questions, and the company kept releasing what turned out to be wrong data for months. New gauges installed in one reactor show that there is hardly any water inside, suggesting that the two other crippled reactors may have similar conditions.

The workers "were not fully trained to think for themselves, and lacked a flexible and proactive way of thinking needed in crisis management," the report said.

Monday's report, like others before it, said the operator and regulators failed to upgrade plant safety and meet international standards to minimize risks, including the possibility of severe damage from power outages.

The three reactors melted down after the March 11, 2011, tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling system. The nuclear disaster displaced tens of thousands of people and will take decades to clean up.

TEPCO officials said they plan to examine the report thoroughly to verify its findings.

"We will respond sincerely if we find anything we should reflect on," company spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said.

The 450-page report also says the government and its main nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency, promoted nuclear power as an entirely safe form of energy without being open about its inherent risks.

It said NISA, which was under the economic ministry, was a toothless entity that failed to live up to its expected role. The government is overhauling the agency to make it more independent and effective.

The panel of 10 independent experts in fields including radiation protection, medicine and law approved the report in its final meeting Monday. They handed it to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who said he will use the findings and recommendations to help guide the revamped regulatory agency, which is to start up by September.

"We take it seriously," Noda said of the report.

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