Fukushima nuclear disaster is warning to the world, says power company boss — The Guardian

” The catastrophic triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011 was “a warning to the world” about the hazards of nuclear power and contained lessons for the British government as it plans a new generation of nuclear power stations, the man with overall responsibility for the operation in Japan has told the Guardian.

Speaking at his Tokyo corporate headquarters , Naomi Hirose, president of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which runs the stricken Fukushima plant, said Britain’s nuclear managers “should be prepared for the worst” in order to avoid repeating Japan’s traumatic experience. “We tried to persuade people that nuclear power is 100% safe. That was easy for both sides. Our side explains how safe nuclear power is. The other side is the people who listen and for them it is easy to hear OK, it’s safe, sure, why not?

“But we have to explain, no matter how small a possibility, what if this [safety] barrier is broken? We have to prepare a plan if something happens … It is easy to say this is almost perfect so we don’t have to worry about it. But we have to keep thinking: what if …”

British ministers recently agreed a commercial deal with the French state-owned energy company EDF Energy to build the UK’s first new nuclear reactor in a generation at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The agreement included the UK government providing accident insurance.

Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi facility on the coast about 124 miles (200km) north-east of Tokyo, comprising six nuclear reactors, was hit by a giant tsunami with waves peaking at 17 metres high caused by the Great East Japan earthquake on 11 March 2011. In what quickly became one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, operators lost control of the plant when the power supply, including emergency back-up, failed amid massive flooding. As cooling systems malfunctioned, reactors 1, 2 and 3 suffered meltdowns.

Reactor 4 was closed for routine maintenance at the time. But one of several hydrogen explosions blew the walls and roof off the reactor building. This week a delicate and lengthy operation to remove fuel rods from that reactor began.

Radiation leakage following the explosions forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the surrounding area. An exclusion zone roughly 11 miles by 19 miles remains in force around the plant two and half years later. The entire facility is now being decommissioned, but Tepco’s clean-up, which has been strongly criticised by environmentalists, is expected to take up to 40 years.

Hirose said that although the situation facing Fukushima Daiichi on 11 March was exceptional, measures could have been adopted in advance that might have mitigated the impact of the disaster. Tepco was at fault for failing to take these steps, he said.

“After I became president [in 2012], we formed a nuclear safety review committee. We focused mainly on what we could do, what we could learn. We had a lot of data by then. Three other reports, one from the Diet [Japan’s parliament], one from government. We had a lot of information. Tepco’s own report, too. We concluded that we should have avoided that catastrophic accident, and we could have. We could see what we should have done.”

Preventative measures included fitting waterproof seals on all the doors in the reactor building, or placing an electricity-generating turbine on the facility’s roof, where the water might not have reached it. In addition, wrong assumptions were made, he said.

“I don’t know if I could have seen or thought this before the accident … Probably I assumed that people had discussed counter-measures to avoid a huge tsunami by something very special like a complete shutdown.”

It transpired that the huge cost and technical complexity of a multiple shutdown, in what was considered the unlikely event of an abnormally large tsunami, had led managers to discount such a scenario as implausible and inefficient, he said.

“What happened at Fukushima was, yes, a warning to the world,” he said. The resulting lesson was clear: “Try to examine all the possibilities, no matter how small they are, and don’t think any single counter-measure is foolproof. Think about all different kinds of small counter-measures, not just one big solution. There’s not one single answer.

“We made a lot of excuses to ourselves … Looking back, seals on the doors, one little thing, could have saved everything.”

Tepco was willing to share its experience with British and other nuclear plant operators if they wished, Hirose said. “We can share all the information, all the data we obtained, that we learned from this accident, and then hope that people will use the data and information to prevent the same thing happening.”

Hirose confirmed that his company has paid a large price for the disaster. It planned to “streamline” the business and shed hundreds of jobs through voluntary retirement to keep itself in business. “We have a huge debt for the compensation for damages and losses and for decommissioning … We have to be sustainable as a going concern.”

Concerned that Tepco may be unable to cope and responding to criticism that the company has bungled parts of the clean-up operation, Japan’s government has agreed to spend 47bn yen (£292m) on dealing with hundreds of static tanks to store radiated water at the plant.

It is also considering paying part of the cost to decommission Fukushima’s damaged nuclear reactors. Tepco will reportedly seek 500bn yen (£3.1bn) in bank loans by the end of the year to help keep itself afloat.

Asked about the severe domestic and international criticism that followed the discovery in July of leaks from some of the tanks storing contaminated water, Hirose said the problem stemmed from a “simple mistake” in managing the tanks. Since the discovery, the monitoring system had been changed and new welded tanks installed, instead of the old bolted together versions.

Hirose said he could not state categorically that all leakage of contaminated groundwater into the sea had ceased, but the outflow was much reduced. “Probably there is some leakage. It is very difficult to say where it comes from and how much it is, but the harbour [radioactivity] level does not go down, so that means there is some leakage … We are trying to stop it.”

Hirose said he felt deeply sorry for the estimated 150,000 local residents who have been forced to leave their homes due to potentially harmful radiation levels, and may in some cases never be able to return.

“I have visited Fukushima many times, met the evacuees, the fishing union, the farmers, many people whose businesses have been damaged very much. I feel very sorry for them. We have to compensate them fully for the damage we caused by our accident.”

Tepco was investing in the area and creating jobs by building a new thermal power plant. But he acknowledged reconstruction and rebuilding would take many years.

After the Fukushima catastrophe, the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation conducted a safety review and its chief inspector, Mike Weightman, concluded there were “no fundamental safety weaknesses” in UK nuclear plants. He said: “We already require protection of nuclear sites against the worst-case scenarios that are predictable for the UK.”

But his report found 38 areas for improvement including risks associated with flooding and the state of preparedness for emergencies. In 2012, documents released under freedom of information rules showed that all eight coastal nuclear locations in the UK, including Hinkley Point, were at risk of flooding and coastal erosion, which would worsen with climate change. EDF Energy said it was confident its UK sites were adequately protected against storms and floods. “Without these arrangements in place the regulator would have the authority to close us down,” said an EDF spokeswoman.

Hirose said that although there are currently no nuclear powerplants operating in Japan, nuclear power had a future in the country. Popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi called last week for Japan to abandon nuclear power altogether, saying it was demonstrably dangerous.

The best course for Japan and other developed countries was energy diversification, Hirose said, combining nuclear power with other forms of generation, including oil, gas and renewables. ”


Atomic mafia: Yakuza ‘cleans up’ Fukushima, neglects basic workers’ rights — RT

” Homeless men employed cleaning up the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, including those brought in by Japan’s yakuza gangsters, were not aware of the health risks they were taking and say their bosses treated them like “disposable people.”

RT’s Aleksey Yaroshevsky, reporting from the site of the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, met with a former Fukushima worker who was engaged in the clean-up operation.

We were given no insurance for health risks, no radiation meters even. We were treated like nothing, like disposable people – they promised things and then kicked us out when we received a large radiation doze,” the young man, who didn’t identify himself, told RT.

The former Fukushima worker explained that when a job offer at Fukushima came up he was unemployed, and didn’t hesitate to take it. He is now planning to sue the firm that hired him.

They promised a lot of money, even signed a long-term contract, but then suddenly terminated it, not even paying me a third of the promised sum,” he said.

While some workers voluntarily agreed to take jobs on the nuclear clean-up project, many others simply didn’t have a choice.

An investigative journalist who went undercover at Fukushima, filming with a camera hidden in his watch, says that many of the workers were brought into the nuclear plant by Japan’s organized crime syndicates, the yakuza.

In Japan, quite often when a certain construction project requires an immediate workforce, in large numbers, bosses make a phone call to the Yakuza. This was the case with Fukushima: the government called Tepco to take urgent action, Tepco relayed it to their subcontractors and they, eventually, as they had a shortage of available workers, called the Yakuza for help,” Tomohiko Suzuki told RT.

According to Japanese police, up to 50 yakuza gangs with 1,050 members currently operate in Fukushima prefecture. Although a special task force to keep organized crime out of the nuclear clean-up project has been set up, investigators say they need first-hand reports from those forced to work by the yakuza to crack down on the syndicates.

Earlier this year, Japanese police made their first arrest, detaining one yakuza over claims he sent workers to the crippled Fukushima plant without a license. Yoshinori Arai regularly took a cut of the workers’ wages, pocketing $60,000 in over two years.

Meanwhile, according to Tepco’s blueprint, dismantling the Fukushima Daiichi plant will require at least 12,000 workers just through 2015. But the company and its subcontractors are already short of workers. As things stand now, there are just over 8,000 registered workers. According to government data, there are 25 percent more openings for jobs at Fukushima plant than applicants. Tomohiko Suzuki says these gaps are often filled by the homeless and the desperately unemployed – people who have nothing to lose, including those with mental disabilities.

Due to the fact that the Japanese government has been reluctant to invite multinational workers into the country, its nuclear industry mostly uses cheap domestic labor, the so-called “nuclear gypsies” – workers from the Sanya neighborhood of Tokyo and Kamagasaki in Osaka, known for large numbers of homeless men.

Working conditions in the nuclear industry have always been bad,” the deputy director of Osaka’s Hannan Chuo Hospital, Saburo Murata, told Reuters. “Problems with money, outsourced recruitment, lack of proper health insurance – these have existed for decades.”

The problem is that after Japan’s parliament approved a bill to fund decontamination work in August 2011, the law did not apply existing rules regulating the profitable construction industry. Therefore, contractors engaged in decontamination were not required to share information on their management, so anyone could instantly become a nuclear contractor, as if by magic.

It is now emerging that many of the cleanup workers, including those recruited to work at the power plant by the yakuza – mostly with gambling debts to the organization or family obligations – often had no idea what they were dealing with.

They were given very general information about radiation and most were not even given radiation meters,” Tomohiko Suzuki told RT. “They could have exposed themselves to large doses without even knowing it. Even the so-called Fukushima 50 – the first group of workers sent there immediately after the disaster – at least three of them were recruited by the yakuza.”

Suzuki published details of what he says is solid evidence, but Tokyo Electric Power Company officials strenuously deny that any mistreatment or organized crime involvement is taking place.

We are doing everything to ensure that our workers operate in safe conditions. We also deal harshly with law-violating subcontractors,” TEPCO spokesman Yoshimi Hitosug said.

There are no exact figures on how many people have worked on the Fukushima cleanup operation. Rough estimates suggest that this may be up to a quarter of a million people. With experts saying it may take another 40 years to completely liquidate the aftermath of the disaster, the lives of millions could be affected. ”

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