Lessons Learned from Fukushima Part 3 – Political

For the last two weeks, I’ve been writing about lessons learned from Fukushima. This third and final part is to look at the broader impacts and see what lessons we can learn at the political level.

There are several interactions to look at between corporations, regulators, and governments, nationally as well as globally. Like the technical and the corporate lessons learned, more lessons will be learned as time goes on and more information comes to light.

NISA independence and oversight

Much has been made of the apparent cozy relationship of TEPCO and NISA. There are clear indications that TEPCO as the largest nuclear utility in Japan had far too much influence on NISA, including some preferred hiring practices. Every country should look closely at the relations between the regulated and the regulator in every industry that has such oversight.

Here in the U.S. it was recognized in the 1970’s that having the same organization both promote nuclear energy and regulate it created a potential conflict of interest that might put regulatory oversight in a position of lower importance. From that recognition, the NRC and the DOE were created to separate the two functions. Similar changes were NOT made in other agencies, leaving mining and drilling as a combined agency. Some believe that this led to some of the inadequate enforcement practices that allowed the BP accident to occur.

However, we must be careful not to over-reach in demanding complete separation between the staff of the regulator and the industry. If no one in the regulator has ever worked within the industry, a vital expertise is lost to the regulator. Experience in operation, design, and analysis in the real world make a huge difference to the effectiveness of the regulator. Similarly, having people from the regulator work in the industry can provide a more balanced view of the risk assessment and concerns to assure ideas and products are safer and more robust in their design and operation.

Political Interference – domestic

There have been reports that Prime Minister Kan of Japan was too involved in the response to the Fukushima incident. We’ve heard that he tried to prevent seawater injection and his desire to fly over the site delayed some of the vital activities. In addition, it appears that he bypassed some of the pre-planned emergency response systems that would have assured more balanced expert advice.

In contrast, in the US after the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico, the government of the US provided strong oversight, but did not directly interfere with BP’s efforts to cap the spill. This was despite significant political pressure to do so.

The US response while emotionally unsatisfying, was the right, measured response. Strong oversight to ensure worker and public safety, but let the experts get the job done.

Political Interference – International

One of the most egregious examples of political grandstanding was NRC Chairman Jaczko’s presentation before Congress on March 16th. He declared that the unit 4 pool was dry and likely on fire and recommended a 50 mile evacuation zone for US citizens. The Japanese government vehemently denied the allegation and was ultimately proven correct.

Dr. Jaczko’s pronouncement did nothing to improve the safety of the people around the site, but created Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt among the Japanese population who no longer knew who to believe between the two governments. It also delayed aid to Japanese citizens who were suffering from the earthquake and tsunami in the 50 mile zone as the U.S. military evacuated from the region.

Further, this damaged relationships between the two governments at a time when full cooperation was important to both the recovery from the earthquake and tsunami AND to the response to the ongoing emergency at Fukushima.

International Emergency Response

IAEA was quick to send people to at least provide some independent international oversight of the risk to the population and the workers on the plant site. The NRC, EPRI, and other agencies also sent personnel with expertise on these plants to provide high level advice and suggestions. Those personnel were used by the Japanese and continue to provide support.

However the international nuclear community was frustrated by its inability to provide immediate help to the stricken nuclear facility. Several factors were at play. In the era that these reactors were built, each design was unique, meaning that people familiar with the design could not simply come to Japan and provide relief to the on-site workers, nor could they provide analytical support for determining what to do next without detailed information of the exact plant design.

Suggestions have been floated to create an international “strike team” that would be available at a moment’s notice to fly to any plant that is in trouble. The idea has a certain appeal, especially to those who like heroes to ride to the rescue in dramatic fashion. I’m not convinced such a scheme is practical.

Conclusion

As I’ve said with every one of these pieces more will be learned as more information comes to light. We, as an industry, need to keep thinking and examining new information to determine how we can operate all of the nuclear plants in the world safely to continue to provide inexpensive, clean electricity to all of the people in the world.