Failure Guru to Report What Went Wrong at Fukushima Reactors

University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Yotaro Hatamura
Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. Photographer: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg

Yotaro Hatamura, an engineering professor who studies industrial accidents caused by design flaws and human error, will issue a report next week after a six-month investigation into the Fukushima disaster.

His 10-member team has compiled a “massive” report on what happened at the nuclear power plant when it was hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the response by its operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., according to a statement from Hatamura’s office. Hatamura, 70, has said the probe will focus on what went wrong and not who is responsible.

The committee is unlikely to have had the time to get the information needed for a full investigation, especially from officials higher ranked than Tepco’s onsite staff, said Shinichi Kamata, a professor of organization and strategy at the National Defense Academy of Japan, who sits on Japan Airlines Co.’s safety advisory group with Hatamura.

“Even if somebody acknowledges his mistake, there is only so much he’d talk about,” Kamata said in a phone interview earlier this week. “We don’t know how much will come out of Tepco headquarters or the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Japanese newspapers have said the report includes failures such as misinterpreted data and malfunctioning cell phones that may have worsened the crisis.

Hatamura was appointed by the government in May to lead an “impartial and multifaceted” investigation into the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.

Cooling Problems

Some managers at the nuclear plant weren’t aware that the emergency water-supply system for cooling reactor No. 1 would stop working if it lost power, the Asahi newspaper reported on Dec. 18, citing unidentified people on Hatamura’s committee. The panel is investigating if the assumption that the emergency system was working slowed the response, the report said.

The high pressure coolant injection system at the No. 3 reactor was stopped by a worker without authority from the plant manager because he wanted to prevent the battery running out, the Mainichi newspaper reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Both reactors had meltdowns in the disaster.

Tepco failed to improve the communications system at Dai-Ichi even after the same kind of cell phones used at the utility’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear station didn’t function when a quake hit the plant in 2007, the Nikkei newspaper reported, without saying who provided the information.

Faulty Phones

About 1,000 cell phones stopped working at Dai-Ichi, except those in a quake-proof building used as an emergency headquarters after the record magnitude 9 earthquake knocked out power, according to the report.

Tepco’s disaster drills also didn’t cover how to respond to a power blackout, the newspaper said.

“As it’s an investigation being conducted by the government committee, we aren’t in a position to comment on what the interim report will say,” Osamu Yokokura, a spokesman for the utility, said by phone today.

Hatamura received his Ph.D. in industrial mechanical engineering from the University of Tokyo in 1973. He began his work studying human error after finding his students were more interested in how engineering projects can go wrong, according to the publisher of his book “Learning from Failure.”

The Failure Knowledge Database that Hatamura set up has studies on more than 1,100 accidents using a method that focuses on design flaws, human error and how designers fail to see future changes in use.

Quake Prone

Hatamura has also indicated his team will probe whether an earthquake-prone country such as Japan should have an energy policy built around atomic power. Because of the inherent dangers in nuclear energy, it’s a mistake to treat it as being “safe,” he said at his team’s first meeting in June.

Any recommendations from Hatamura may be hard to institute, said Haruo Hayashi, a director at Kyoto University’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute.

The so-called nuclear village, the nexus of companies, politicians, bureaucrats and academics promoting atomic power, wants recommendations that can be applied easily so normal operations can be resumed, he said.

If the report “deals with the fundamental change of the entire system, the village structure, it may be very difficult for them to take,” Hayashi said in an interview.

Tepco officials have already indicated they don’t need an independent review after publishing the results of the company’s probe into the disaster on Dec. 2.

Tepco Insists

In that report, Tepco said critical units at Fukushima withstood shaking from the March 11 earthquake before being swamped by the unprecedented tsunami that followed.

“We will insist on the validity of our report” regardless of Hatamura’s conclusions, Masao Yamazaki, an executive vice president at Tepco who led the company’s probe, said when releasing the results.

All but 7 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are offline with no schedule for restarts following the Fukushima disaster. Japan relied on atomic energy for about 30 percent of its electricity supply before the accident.

Tepco’s Fukushima station had three reactor meltdowns after the earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and backup generators, crippling its cooling systems. Leaking radiation has forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people and the government has yet to say how many can return and when.

Other members of Hatamura’s team include a former chief prosecutor, a retired chief judge, academics, a former diplomat, a radiology specialist, a writer and the mayor of a town in Fukushima prefecture.

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