The technological things that went wrong at Fukushima are well-documented. What concerns us is how this entirely preventable situation was allowed to occur. As the NY Times has reported, Japan’s nuclear industry and its regulatory bodies exist in a relationship of regulatory capture, where the agency that is supposed to be regulating the industry is in fact an advocate for it, and whitewashes any problems that come to its attention:
At Fukushima Daiichi and elsewhere, critics say that safety problems have stemmed from a common source: a watchdog that is a member of the nuclear power village.
Though it is charged with oversight, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is part of the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, the bureaucracy charged with promoting the use of nuclear power. Over a long career, officials are often transferred repeatedly between oversight and promotion divisions, blurring the lines between supporting and policing the industry.
Influential bureaucrats tend to side with the nuclear industry — and the promotion of it — because of a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven. Widely practiced in Japan’s main industries, amakudari allows senior bureaucrats, usually in their 50s, to land cushy jobs at the companies they once oversaw
“Because of this collusion, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency ends up becoming a member of the community seeking profits from nuclear power,” said Hidekatsu Yoshii, a Communist Party lawmaker and nuclear engineer who has long followed the nuclear industry.
Collusion flows the other way, too, in a lesser-known practice known as amaagari, or ascent to heaven. Because the regulatory panels meant to backstop the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency lack full-time technical experts, they depend largely on retired or active engineers from nuclear-industry-related companies. They are unlikely to criticize the companies that employ them.
Likewise, a Stanford University study (PDF)(citation) showed that nuclear power plants run by the three largest utilities in Japan — those with the most political clout — had less than half the tsunami protection than plants run by smaller companies. The researchers found out Hav, the average height of historical tsunamis that had struck the location of each plant, and for each plant found out “the Hav ratio, calculated as Hav/maximum of plant and sea wall height. A number above one indicates that, for a given plant, implied average wave height exceeds the maximum of plant and sea wall height.” (p.6085) The researchers found out that
Plants operated by the three largest Japanese utilities, TEPCO, KEPCO, and Chubu, tend to have high Hav ratios. Along with JAPCO – a utility 60% owned by TEPCO, KEPCO, and Chubu – these companies operate all nuclear plants in Japan with Hav ratios above one. These companies also were the earliest builders of nuclear plants. [However,] A simple linear regression suggests that ownership by a large utility is associated with high vulnerability as indicated by the Hav ratio, even after controlling for construction date…
Our measures indicate that inadequate protection in Japan is concentrated among the largest utilities. An international comparison underscores this point. For nuclear plants operated by small utilities in Japan (i.e., excluding TEPCO, KEPCO, Chubu, and JAPCO), the average Hav ratio is 0.43, indistinguishable from the international average of 0.41. In comparison, the Hav ratio for plants operated by large utilities average 1.05, more than twice the international average [which also means that these plants, on average, have seawall protection that is lower than the known waves that have struck their location. (p. 6085-6)
The Stanford researchers also pointed out that regulators often trust larger companies more and hence regulate them less. Whatever the reason, the symbiotic regulatory situation in Japan is completely analogous to the one in Canada, where experts routinely move between government and private jobs.
It is therefore relevant to point out that in this cozy relationship between regulator and industry, the largest companies also have the worst safety record in general:
One important question is whether large utilities also exhibit signs of lax safety in areas aside from protection against inundation. A cursory examination of data on total accidents shows that large utility operators in Japan have experienced twice as many accidents as small operators, and the frequency of accidents is about 42% higher when measured on the basis of accidents per plant years in operation. (p. 6087)
All in all, Fukushima strongly demonstrates the problems that can result when industry professionals, advocates and regulators are not clearly distinct from one another. Fukushima’s example makes it all the more troubling that the review of the proposed DGR in Bruce County is operating under the same sort of regulatory capture.
Phillip Y. Lipscy, Kenji E. Kushida, and Trevor Incerti. 2013 “The Fukushima Disaster and Japan’s Nuclear Plant Vulnerability in Comparative Perspective,” Environmental Science and Technology. #47 (May). pp. 6082−6088. http://www.stanford.edu/~plipscy/LipscyKushidaIncertiEST2013.pdf