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At Tokyo Electric, a History of Shortcuts, Near Misses and Coverups

The unfolding crisis at Tokyo Electric's Fukushima nuclear power plant has been compared -- more than a few times -- to last year's human and environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the comparisons are a stretch. Still there's a striking similarity between BP and Tokyo Electric, the two companies primarily responsible in each of these separate and potentially avoidable disasters.

You can't blame Tokyo Electric for the record-breaking earthquake and ensuing tsunami. But choices the company made long ago made the consequences of that one-two punch much, much worse. Its history of shortcuts, near misses and cover-ups leads to only one conclusion: a disaster at one of its nuclear power plants was inevitable.

The most recent example occurred only two weeks before the March 11 earthquake hit Japan, when TEPCO told safety regulators it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment in the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex. This wasn't small, insignificant equipment either. The equipment included a motor and a backup power generator for the No. 1 reactor TEPCO said in a report on its website. Perhaps more troubling is the response from regulators, which gave TEPCO until June 2 to make corrections at the plant.

Some of TEPCO's problems pre-Fukushima:

  • TEPCO admitted in August 2002 it had covered up flaws in its reactors throughout the 1990s. Senior company officials resigned and the government launched an investigation. Three other major nuclear companies would later make similar admissions.
  • International Atomic Energy Agency reports in 2002 describe safety precautions at Japanese nuclear reactors as "dangerously weak."
  • TEPCO announced in March 2007 that an internal investigation revealed a large number of unreported incidents going all the way back to 1978. Company execs apologized and the plants were allowed to continue operating.
  • TEPCO lied about radiation leaks from its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in the aftermath of a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in July 2007. The company would later admit that 317 gallons of radioactive water had ended up in the sea.
  • Then there are the designs problems at Fukushima. Perhaps the most disastrous was TEPCO's failure to plan for a tsunami that could overcome its sea wall. The diesel motors that would provide essential backup power in an emergency were quickly swamped with water and out of commission during this latest disaster.
The bigger problem is that these shortcomings aren't isolated within Tokyo Electric -- they pervade Japan's entire nuclear energy industry. In fact, some of the worst incidents in the past two decades have been from other operators. Former GE engineer Kei Sugaoka, the whistleblower who exposed TEPCO's coverup in 2002, has since described the cozy relationship between the Japanese government and industry and says, "everything is a secret."

Which just leaves the rest of us wondering, what is the government and TEPCO lying about this time?

Photo from Flickr user ssoosay, CC 2.0

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