Fukushima disaster reveals darker side to TEPCO success story | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 05.09.2011

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Fukushima disaster reveals darker side to TEPCO success story

Six months ago, an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worse nuclear crisis the world had seen since Chernobyl. It also revealed how much covering up had gone on at one of Japan's most powerful energy giants, TEPCO.

Workers in protective suits set up temporary pressure gauges in the Unit 2 reactor building at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Okuma, Fukushima

Radiation levels remain high in Fukushima province

Three days after the devastating tsunami hit Japan in March, Prime Minister Naoto Kan snapped. He stormed into the headquarters of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and asked what on earth was going on. He complained to the company president Masataka Shimizu that the flow of information was not efficient enough. He had heard on television that there had been an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor but TEPCO had only informed him hours later. Kan set up a crisis center in TEPCO's offices and put in his own staff. Shimizu disappeared behind the scenes until stepping down in disgrace in May.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan bows before a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo Friday, May 6, 2011

Naoto Kan bowed to the population, not to the nuclear industry

A head of government had never publicly attacked such a powerful energy giant before and partly taken away its control. The Japanese nuclear sector was outraged. TEPCO, with its 52,000 employees, is one of Japan's biggest companies, supplying more than a quarter of Japan's nuclear energy. It is effectively the only supplier for the greater Tokyo area, serving some 45 million inhabitants.

Japan's economic rise in the 1950s can largely be attributed to TEPCO as the former state company supplied the energy-hungry country with cheap electricity. Because the island empire does not have its own coal, gas or oil, the company invested massively in nuclear power in the 1970s and now runs three nuclear complexes with 17 reactors. The now crippled Fukushima 1 plant was the first reactor to be connected to the electrical grid in 1971.

Scandals, disappointments and failures

The Japanese public encountered the darker side of the TEPCO success story in August 2002. For over 20 years, the company had kept all incidents, accidents and breakdowns quiet, doing its best to camouflage anything that was suspicious. Safety reports were falsified and long overdue maintenance and repair work was postponed. When the scandal broke, the Japanese were shocked and TEPCO's managers were forced to resign. The government ordered all 17 reactors to be taken offline. However, they were reconnected a year later despite loud protests from the population. Although the government put its trust in the new management, the failures and cover-ups continued.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.(TEPCO) President Masataka Shimizu, center, holding a document folder, leaves after a press conference at the TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TEPCO President Shimizu (center) eventually resigned in May

Just 10 days before the devastating tsunami, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) found that there had been considerable neglect regarding inspection and maintenance at TEPCO. The Daiichi machines, including probably the cooling pumps, diesel generators, temperature control valves in the reactor blocks that were to fail soon afterwards, had not been inspected properly for over 11 years.

After the Fukushima catastrophe, the whole world found out how difficult it was for TEPCO to keep the catastrophe under control and how it was unable to give the worried Japanese population adequate information. For days, badly-informed TEPCO workers dressed in blue overalls stood before the public and showed how incapable of action the operator effectively was.

Financial disaster

The disaster has also been a catastrophe in financial terms, with TEPCO raking up losses of 7.5 billion euros this year. It also had to cough up 1.2 billion euros for repairs. Moreover, the law stipulates that TEPCO will have to pay compensation to the 160,000 people within a 30-kilometer radius of the reactor who have had to leave either temporarily or permanently. TEPCO estimates that the compensation costs will reach 400 million euros.

A woman feeds her baby at a shelter for those evacuated away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Tens of thousands are still living in emergency accommodation after being evacuated

However, because the government cannot afford to let TEPCO go bankrupt, Naoto Kan even considered re-nationalizing the company. The state is already paying a large part of the costs. The profits of the past went into the company coffers, whereas the huge losses are being borne by Japan's taxpayers.

Influential nuclear lobby

The disaster has not made the influential nuclear lobby any more humble. It was recently made known that the two state organizations responsible for monitoring the safety of nuclear power stations had been involved or at least turned a blind eye when TEPCO falsified safety protocols or operators put up a fight against further safety regulations. The nuclear safety agency even planted employees of the nuclear sector at awareness events so as to sway public opinion in favor of nuclear energy.

Consequently, Kan's government fired the three top officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, from the national energy agency and the agency for nuclear safety and called for an independent nuclear watchdog. The prime minister also effectively declared war against the nuclear lobby by calling for more use of renewable energies in Japan. Days later, Kan was forced to resign. His successor Yoshihiko Noda has adopted a less aggressive stance towards the nuclear sector.

Author: Alexander Freund / act
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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