Japanese utility admits it failed to plan for tsunami disaster

TEPCO-operated Fukushima plant inundated by March 2011 tsunami
The Japanese electrical utility that operated the now-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex acknowledged Wednesday that its managers were "too optimistic" that a devastating earthquake- and tsunami-triggered disaster would never occur.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co. report on its culpability in the March 2011 nuclear disaster was undertaken "with an eye on what is necessary for ensuring nuclear safety, and the important lessons learned will be incorporated into our future business operation," TEPCO said in a statement accompanying its findings.

The disasters that killed at least 16,000, displaced more than 160,000 and contaminated huge swaths of farmland were "beyond expectations," TEPCO said in its report, which was based on interviews with more than 600 company employees, government officials and public safety workers.

The utility acknowledged fault for the accident 150 miles north of Tokyo, but also blamed the Japanese government for interference in the disaster response and failure to provide timely communication between emergency relief workers conducting evacuations and disaster response teams at the stricken power complex.

TEPCO Vice President Masao Yamazaki conceded that company officials underestimated the risk of a tsunami despite repeated warnings from seismic experts that the earthquake-prone island nation could be inundated by walls of water set in motion by undersea temblors.

“We must admit that our tsunami anticipation was too optimistic, and our insufficient preparations for a tsunami were the fundamental cause of the accident,” Yamazaki told journalists in Tokyo Wednesday.

TEPCO's report followed a similar mea culpa issued Monday by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which conceded that poor oversight of the crisis resulted in evacuees fleeing into the path of the radiation spewing from Fukushima, rather than away from it.

U.S. military aircraft collected data on the direction and volume of leaking radiation during flyovers of the affected region in the first days after the disasters, but the information relayed to NISA through the Japanese Foreign Ministry wasn't passed on to those overseeing evacuations, Industry Minister Yukio Edano told a news conference in Tokyo.

"It is extremely regrettable that this information was not shared or utilized properly within the government and I have no words to apologize, especially to the disaster victims," Edano said.

In criticism of the TEPCO report, Japan's NHK network asserted that the utility "still doesn't know the extent of radioactivity that has been released since the start of the crisis, or how much damage the reactors suffered from the earthquake independent of the tsunami."

The accident investigation reports and analyses seemed unlikely to alleviate Japanese concerns about the imminent restart of two nuclear reactors at Ohi, in Fukui Prefecture. The government announced plans last weekend to bring the reactors back on line to augment electrical supplies to the areas around Osaka and Kyodo to avert power shortages during high-demand summer months.

A poll published earlier this month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed 70% of Japanese surveyed wanted nuclear power reduced or eliminated. It also found 80% distrustful of the government's ability to properly manage the nuclear industry and be candid about safety and environmental concerns.

All 50 reactors in Japan, which used to supply 30% of the country's electricity needs, were idled following the Fukushima disaster for safety inspections and upgrades.

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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: In this March 11, 2011, photo by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the access road at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex is flooded by an earthquake-triggered tsunami that damaged reactor containment structures. Credit: TEPCO

 
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