The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


February 2014

Getting Back on Top
TEPCO reform committee chair believes the utility is making progress

By Oliver Arlow
Custom Media
Photos by Benjamin Parks

Praise has been in short supply for Tokyo Electric Power Company, Incorporated (TEPCO) in the nearly three years since the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. However, Dr. Dale Klein believes it is about time the company got some recognition for the progress it has made and the lessons it has learned.

Although the problems that dog the crippled plant have not all gone away and it will be many years before the four damaged reactors are brought fully back under control, the former chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission pointed out that work to remove the spent fuel rods from the plant’s no. 4 reactor has been progressing smoothly and TEPCO is constantly reviewing and improving its processes.

“It is going to be a long process of recovery and TEPCO is going to have to demonstrate competence, compliance, and transparency every step of the way,” said Klein, who was asked to chair the company’s Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, made up of four external experts, when it was set up in September 2012.

“The public should be very happy with the way the work to remove the spent fuel rods from the no. 4 reactor is going and this good work needs to be shared,” he said.

“TEPCO needs success stories and to tell them to the public.”

Klein, who is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research in the Office of Academic Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, visited Tokyo in December to chair a meeting of the international committee established to monitor progress of safety reforms at TEPCO.

The committee identified in an interim report a series of developments that TEPCO has recently introduced, many of them positive.

To handle the complex issue of managing contaminated water at the Fukushima site, the committee called on TEPCO to carry out the key safety measures that had been announced on November 8, but emphasized that a comprehensive solution to the problem of constantly accumulating water requires coordination with the national government and local communities.

According to the report, the successful removal of spent fuel rods from the no. 4 reactor pool “is a great milestone in the long-term decommissioning work.” It called on TEPCO to continue the process, making safety its highest priority and ensuring transparency in its progress.

Lessons from the experiences at Fukushima have been applied to improve the resilience of Niigata Prefecture’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, and TEPCO must continue working to enhance the safety culture at the largest atomic energy plant in the world.

Finally, the members of the committee praised TEPCO for instituting a variety of improvements in its emergency response planning, based on frequent disaster drills at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. However, it added that additional drills are required, jointly with other parties and when contemplating even more serious disasters.

“TEPCO is at the bottom, but I am confident that it is climbing up,” he said. “The template is in place for that recovery, but we have found that the difficult thing to completely overcome is the corporate culture [in Japan].

“The employees here are very good at following directions and excellent when they understand the issue, but they do not have the questioning and challenging attitudes that we need to see,” he said.

“If the boss tells an employee to do something, they do it. In the safety culture that exists in the US nuclear industry, it is very important to question. Everyone has to be challenging and ask what and why.”

Despite mistakes having been made in planning and preparation prior to the disaster, Klein reserves special praise for the men and women who dealt with the aftermath of the world’s second-worst nuclear catastrophe, as well as a similar team at the nearby Daini plant.

“The staff at Daiichi performed heroically, but there was little they could ultimately do because they had lost off-site power,” he said. “At Daini, all four reactors were at full power and they managed to bring them all to a cold shut down.

“The head of the plant was a real leader and they were able to lay 9km of cables in 30 hours to maintain the off-site power,” he said. “It was an extraordinary performance.”

The task facing the company—and its outside advisors—is to first remove all the spent fuel rods from the pool in the no. 4 reactor, followed by carrying out the same delicate task in the three remaining reactor buildings, which have been more seriously damaged.

After this, the industry must develop ways to remove and render safe large amounts of radioactive rubble and debris and, eventually, deal with the three reactors, which have suffered melt-throughs of their cores.

Nothing similar has been attempted before. More immediately, solutions need to be found for the problem of contaminated water that is being stored in hundreds of tanks dotted around the site.

Ultimately, however, Klein believes Japan has little choice but to restart the nuclear reactors that it relies on so heavily to power industry and society here.

“Japan has a choice: yes or no,” he said. “If they decide not to restart the reactors, they have to understand that it will have a serious impact. Japan will have to import 98 percent of its energy in the form of fossil fuels and the way of life here will change dramatically.

“Is nuclear energy safe? Yes, but it is not risk free,” he said. “I believe the global nuclear industry will now be safer because of what happened at Fukushima. We have learned from it just as we learned from the accident at Three Mile Island [in 1979].”