TOKYO – Nearly 10 years after Japan's top utility first assured the government that its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was safe from any tsunami, regulators were just getting around to checking out the claim. The move was too little, too late.
But even if there had been scrutiny years before the fury of an earthquake-powered wave swamped the six atomic reactors at Fukushima on March 11, it is almost certain the government wouldn't have challenged the unrealistic analysis that Tokyo Electric Power Co. had submitted in 2001. An Associated Press review of Japan's approach to nuclear plant safety shows how closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail.
Regulators simply didn't see it as their role to pick apart the utility's raw data and computer modeling to judge for themselves whether the plant was sufficiently protected from tsunami. The policy amounted to this: Trust plant operator TEPCO — and don't worry about verifying its math or its logic.
This kind of willful ignorance was not unique within a sympathetic bureaucracy at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The agency has multiple functions — some that can easily be viewed as having conflicting goals. The ministry is charged with touting the benefits of nuclear energy, selling Japanese technology to other countries — and regulating domestic nuclear plant safety.
Until January, it was led by a former engineer in the nuclear plant design section at Hitachi Ltd.
The ministry's promoter-regulator conflict makes Japan unusual among nuclear power-producing countries. The United States split those two functions nearly four decades ago with the closure of its Atomic Energy Commission; now the U.S. Department of Energy promotes nuclear power while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission handles safety. France separated the two functions several years ago, removing its nuclear regulator from the government bureaucracy and making it an independent authority.
In Japan, where a government until recently dominated by a business-friendly ruling party has long supported major industries, the power utilities that run nuclear plants have enjoyed direct access to regulators.
Both regulator and regulated share an interest in promoting nuclear as a greenhouse gas-free energy source that reduces the island nation's heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels.
Regulator and regulated also share people.
In a practice known in Japanese as amakudari, which translates as "descent from heaven," top government officials nearing the end of their careers land plum jobs within the industries they regulated, giving Japan's utilities intimate familiarity with their overseers. Meanwhile, top industry officials are appointed to positions on policy-shaping government advisory panels. Pre-tsunami promises to crack down on amakudari have yet to be fulfilled.
All countries with nuclear power sectors have a limited group of people who participate in a highly complex industry. That finite universe means some experts inevitably move between the public and private sectors.
Countries with fledgling nuclear programs, such as in Eastern Europe, tend to see initial movement between regulator and regulated that slows as the program matures, according to Ken E. Brockman, until recently the International Atomic Energy Agency's director of nuclear installation safety.
American law restricts which jobs outgoing regulators can hold in the private sector. A high-level manager at the U.S. NRC would have to wait a year after leaving the agency before representing a private sector entity before it; former NRC employees can never appear before the federal government and represent the public sector on a specific issue — such as a contract or license application — they handled while at the agency.
In Japan, the "revolving door" spins freely.
Toru Ishida became an adviser at TEPCO in January, just four months after retiring as the head of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, the ministry organization that promotes the nuclear industry; after becoming a post-tsunami symbol for amakudari, he resigned. Ishida wasn't the first senior energy agency official to depart for the utility. Susumu Shirakawa held a senior agency post before he joined the TEPCO board and eventually became a vice president.
The AP review of relationships on both sides of the nuclear power establishment shows that industry people ascend to regulatory posts as well.
AP examined the business and institutional ties of 95 people currently at three main nuclear regulatory bodies, either as bureaucrats or members of policy-setting advisory panels. Overall, 26 of them have been affiliated either with the industry or groups that promote nuclear power, typically with government funding. AP also came across 24 people with prior positions at those three regulatory bodies — one-third of whom had connections to industry or pro-nuclear groups.
Industry is heavily involved elsewhere in Japan's government. At the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which backs research and promotes Japan's nuclear industry, one of the five commissioners is an adviser to TEPCO, while another is a former executive at the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry.
"TEPCO participates when its expertise is required on various panels related to nuclear issues," said Linda Gunter, a TEPCO spokeswoman until April 20, when she too resigned.
A spokesman for Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, an industry group which includes former utilities employees, said regulatory panels need insiders because nuclear energy is a specialized field.
"It's the question of balance," spokesman Kiyoshi Sato said. "Hearing from a different viewpoint can be refreshing."
Perhaps no one illustrates the movement between business and government — and back — better than Tokio Kano. He joined TEPCO in 1957, became a leader in the utility's nuclear unit in 1989, and by 1998 entered Japan's parliament as a candidate for a seat given to the nation's largest business lobbying group.
In parliament, Kano helped rewrite national policy that enshrined nuclear as the energy of Japan's future.
After two six-year terms, he returned to TEPCO as an adviser in July. The utility declined to make him available for an interview.
The aftermath of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami may finally persuade a nation long enchanted with nuclear power that intimate ties between regulator and regulated can create significant potential conflicts of interest.
The government's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, promised recently to curb the ability of bureaucrats to depart for jobs at utilities.
"Regardless of whether this is illegal or not, this should not be allowed," he told reporters.
As Fukushima Dai-ichi deteriorated into a disaster as serious as Chernobyl, the main spokesman at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency maintained that the regulatory structure was fine. But after a month, NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama wavered.
"Our thinking up to now was that safety will be maintained by the same group that both promotes and regulates the industry," Nishiyama said.
That attitude was partly a produce of Japan's post-World War II economic progress. This is a nation that prides itself on technological prowess, attention to detail and success based on honest work.
Under Japan's nuclear regulatory system, NISA carries out plant inspections once every 13 months and checks on safety measures every quarter. There are no surprise inspections, though inspectors visit plants routinely. Utilities have been ordered to shut plants temporarily after safety problems and cover-up scandals, and they have paid damages.
In 2002, after TEPCO was found to be misrepresenting inspection videotape and other records, the maximum that companies could be fined for a false report was raised to 100 million yen ($1.2 million). No utility has received that penalty and TEPCO has never paid any fines related to falsifying records.
What TEPCO did do in 2002 was clean house — at least symbolically — by firing its leadership. But in what the Japanese call "the nuclear village," people take care of their own. Three top executives who departed the utility in disgrace found their way back. Currently advising TEPCO are Nobuya Minami, Hiroshi Araki and Toshiaki Enomoto — the former president, chairman and vice president who resigned amid the scandal.
To be sure, despite a series of serious cover-ups by Japan's utilities, the nuclear industry here is not regarded as dangerously under-regulated. In fact, there is layer upon layer of bureaucracy in the national government.
But that means regulators can be so slow to act that the utilities effectively self-regulate.
That's what happened with the tsunami threat to Fukushima Dai-ichi.
TEPCO told NISA in a one-page memo it voluntarily submitted in December 2001 that waves would not exceed 5.7 meters (18 feet), according to Masaru Kobayashi, head of the agency's nuclear power plant safety section. On March 11, the water reached 14 meters (46 feet) above sea level at the plant, knocking out backup power generators to the reactors, causing a cascade of problems that has led to the ongoing release of radiation into the environment.
TEPCO's memo didn't include anything about its data or assumptions of earthquake size and location — vital details to determine whether the calculations made sense.
NISA, the government regulator, neither demanded the information nor scrutinized the guidelines TEPCO used in its calculations. If regulators had looked, they would have found that 22 of the 35 people on the committee that wrote the guidelines had strong ties to the nuclear power industry. Among them, three were from TEPCO and one was from an affiliate of the utility; 13 more were from Japan's other electric power companies.
To hear NISA's Kobayashi tell it, the safety regulator did not thoroughly analyze TEPCO's tsunami memo.
"We do not know the contents of that assessment," Kobayashi said in an interview. "We had been planning to do our tsunami-related review."
Those discussions had been delegated to several of the 99 committees at NISA that scrutinize nuclear plant safety. They were going to start this year, Kobayashi said.
Despite the sprawling committee structure, panelists were typically familiar faces drawn from a network of utilities, government bureaucracies, business-affiliated research groups and elite universities.
In these committees, the process of setting safety policy can feel like a Kabuki play, without the artistry — a long, slow dance heavy on formality. Rare voices of doubt were almost always dismissed.
Many times, regulation has been reactive, not proactive. For example, in 2007, NISA's committees began focusing on seismic dangers — but only after an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused radioactive leaks, a minor fire and wall cracks at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, another sprawling nuclear power complex run by TEPCO.
That 6.8 magnitude earthquake was stronger than TEPCO had said was possible. That miscalculation reinforced concerns about the safety of nuclear plants, which provide about 30 percent of Japan's electricity. Already, the public was growing leery of the industry based on episodes going back at least two decades in which utilities including TEPCO faked safety inspections and covered up known damage.
Tasked with reviewing the earthquake and tsunami preparedness of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors, NISA went to work — at a drawn-out pace that lacked urgency and deep scrutiny of many important issues.
Six "subgroup committees" looked at earthquakes and tsunami standards. The subgroups reported to three "working groups," which held bigger meetings. Overseeing those working groups was an additional committee.
Transcripts of the meetings show members rarely challenged one another — in Japanese culture, embarrassing others publicly can be considered shameful.
During nearly four years of panel discussions, the groups focused on issues such as plants' ability to withstand shaking, and measures of geological fault lines. Concern about nuclear plants being vulnerable to tsunami waves that have battered Japan following major quakes came up just once, according to AP's review of meeting records, interviews with several panel members and NISA's own accounting.
At a June 2009 meeting, Yukinobu Okamura, a tsunami expert at a major government institute, asked why his fellow panelists were excluding the massive Jogan tsunami in 869 A.D. from consideration of the kind of waves Fukushima Dai-ichi could face.
"I would like to ask why you have not touched on this at all," Okamura demanded of the panel. "I find it unacceptable."
A TEPCO official, identified only by his last name, Nishimura, retorted that damage from Jogan wasn't extensive — a claim Okamura rebutted.
The NISA official presiding over the panel ordered more discussions. That never happened.
NISA wasn't alone in its use of expert panels. Another regulator that uses them is the Nuclear Safety Commission, which is smaller and more academic than NISA, and is housed in the prime minister's Cabinet Office.
In the current situation, the NSC has often seemed impotent. It has defended itself by saying that day-to-day crisis management must come from TEPCO — and that it is up to NISA to guide TEPCO.
Its chief, Haruki Madarame, was until last year a prominent University of Tokyo professor, whose research has focused on winning social acceptance for nuclear power by better communication on safety.
Madarame's former university has been a primary source for the ministry bureaucrats and professors on government advisory panels that shaped tsunami and earthquake safety policies. And TEPCO was an important donor to the University of Tokyo.
Among TEPCO's donations, according to university records released in March: 150 million yen ($1.8 million) over five years to the university's Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Society Laboratory, which promotes nuclear power; and 40 million yen ($470,000) to an architectural institute headed by a former manager in TEPCO's energy sales section. A current TEPCO employee works on a university project researching power networks; TEPCO, along with two other companies, has donated 150 million yen ($1.8 million) to the effort.
AP's review of transcripts of panel meetings at the NSC shows the presence and influence of another academic not obviously affiliated with the nuclear industry.
Research by Yoshihiro Kinugasa, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and veteran on regulatory panels, tended to underestimate fault line lengths — thus helping reduce projected earthquake risks for nuclear power plants.
Kinugasa, a key member of regulatory panels since 1984, said in a recent interview his studies on fault lines near nuclear plants were unrelated to the problems at Fukushima Dai-ichi, caused by a fault about 220 miles (350 kilometers) off the coast. He said the panels are staffed by qualified experts who constantly review the latest science.
At a five-hour meeting in August 2006, Kinugasa was challenged by Kobe University professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, who requested a re-examination of issues including fault lines.
"That argument basically sounds like going over the same thing," Kinugasa said. "Spending any more time on the matter I think would be a waste of time."
Ishibashi wasn't impressed, and quit the panel later that year, complaining that contrary opinion was not tolerated.
Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Troy Thibodeaux in New Orleans and AP news researchers Barbara Sambriski in New York and Julie Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.