UK | Japan under fire for failure to implement safeguards at Fukushima

Posted on June 18, 2011

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UK | GUARDIAN | Saturday 18 June 2011 15.56 BST
Fukushima Japan

Japanese nuclear regulators have been criticised by the UN for failing to implement sufficient tsunami safeguards at the Fukushima plant despite warnings as early as 2002 that the plant was vulnerable to a tidal wave disaster.

A detailed assessment by experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the first outside review of Japan‘s nuclear crisis – suggested several shortcomings both before and after a tsunami crippled the power station on 11 March and triggered the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.

A three-page summary issued following the 18-member team’s inspection in May said Japan underestimated the threat from tsunamis to the Fukushima plant, and urged sweeping changes to its regulatory system.

Authorities were criticised for failing to plan for a tsunami that would surge over the power station’s 5.7m (19ft) wall. The wave that crashed into the complex after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake was about 14m (46ft) high.

Extra protective steps were taken as a result of an evaluation after 2002 – the projected tsunami height was increased – but they were insufficient “to cope with the high tsunami run-up values and all associated hazardous phenomena”.

“Moreover, those additional protective measures were not reviewed and approved by the regulatory authority,” said the report. It added: “Severe accident management provisions were not adequate to cope with multiple plant failures.”

However, the document, obtained by Reuters after it was submitted to IAEA member states prior to its publication, also praised the way workers on the ground dealt with the aftermath of the tsunami.

Given the extreme circumstances it is doubtful “that any better solutions than the ones actually chosen could have been realistically implemented”, said the full 160-page report, prepared for a ministerial nuclear safety meeting in Vienna next week.

At the IAEA-hosted meeting, to be held 20-24 June, some 150 nations will begin charting a strategy on boosting global nuclear safety, but differences on how much international action is needed may hamper follow-up efforts, diplomats say.

Japan’s crisis has prompted a rethink of energy policy around the world, underlined by Germany’s decision to shut down all its reactors by 2022 and an Italian vote to bannuclear power for decades.

In 2007, the IAEA was ignored when it called on Japan to create a more powerful and independent nuclear regulator, and the report underlined the need for greater regulatory control. “An updating of regulatory requirements and guidelines should be performed reflecting the experience and data obtained during the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami,” it said.

Japan has a well-organised emergency readiness and response system, but “complicated structures and organisations can result in delays in urgent decision making”, it added.

The report also listed wider lessons for improving nuclear safety worldwide and help avert any repeat of the disaster, saying that reactors should be built so that they can withstand rare and “complex combinations” of external threats.

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