A Meltdown in Communication: Nuclear Disaster and Corporate Accountability

A new report released by The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation questions the safety of nuclear power, especially in the hands of private companies.

A team of 30 lawyers, university professors, and journalists interviewed several hundred people involved with last year's triple nuclear plant meltdown at Fukushima. What they found should serve as a caution to the U.S. government and the U.S. nuclear power industry.

In the days just after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government struggled to maintain consistent lines of communication with Tokyo Electric Power's executive office and the manager of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Masao Yoshida.

Mr. Yoshida asserted repeatedly that he could get the damaged plants under control if he was allowed to keep all of his staff on site. At the same time, the owners of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), demanded that the government allow them to evacuate all personnel from the Fukushima Daiichi complex.

Undoubtedly Tepco's executives viewed this as a liability issue: if any more of their personnel were injured, they could be sued. But a much bigger problem would have been caused by a complete evacuation, according to the report. If the Daiichi complex had been evacuated, it's nuclear cores would have spiraled out of control, releasing so much radiation that other, nearby nuclear plants would have required evacuation, too. This would have put the reactors at Fukushima Daini and Tokai at severe risk of meltdowns. This "demonic chain reaction," as described by Japan's chief cabinet secretary at the time, would have forced the evacuation of Tokyo prefecture, which holds 13 million people--or just over 10% of Japan's entire population.

Tepco's President, Masataka Shimizu, made repeated calls to Prime Minister Naoto Kan insisting that Tepco be allowed to pull out all of its personnel from the Daiichi plant. But Naoto Kan, who is often castigated in the Japanese media for being too much of an activist, responded by storming into Tepco's executive offices and insisting that they remain involved in bringing the Daiichi plant under control. It was Mr. Kan's activist tendencies that saved Japan, not the vagaries of the private market.

Here's how the private market operates: when a disaster occurs, it makes the most economic sense for a business to throw up its hands and walk away and let the government pick up the pieces. Companies are ruled primarily by their bottom line: anything that would cost too much money or eat into a company's profits must be abandoned. "Cut your losses" is the mantra. And if necessary, declare bankruptcy so the company's shareholders and executives never have to pay a dime in penalties or compensation to the victims.

In the case of an industry as potentially dangerous as the nuclear power industry, this could be disastrous. Politicians don't know the technical requirements of nuclear power plants. They can't make informed decisions in a crisis without the help of the engineers who work for the private companies that run the plants. But when the leadership of a private company doesn't want to cooperate, then the ensuing high-risk communications meltdown can endanger the lives of millions of people.

As the head of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation said, "We barely avoided the worst-case scenario, though the public didn't know it at the time."

But if that worst-case scenario had come to pass, the Japanese public would have been the ones to pay. And the rest of the world would've had to deal with the fallout. Literally.

Of course the U.S. nuclear power industry likes to point out the failings of the Japanese regulatory system. But the U.S. nuclear regulatory system has its own failings. Like a policy of automatically extending licenses on aging nuclear plants with ongoing maintenance problems.

In the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, several European nations pledged to phase out nuclear power, but the U.S. is still pursuing an expansion, including the construction of a new generation of plants--to be owned and managed by private companies, of course.

The American people should pay closer attention to the events at Fukushima and question our government's ability to manage a similar crisis. Could you envision an American president storming into the offices of a major U.S. corporation and demanding that they clean up the mess?

No, I didn't think so.

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