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Japan’s Independent Probe Into Fukushima Releases Report Today

Japan’s Independent Probe Into Fukushima Releases Report Today
The No. 3 reactor building stands at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (Tepco) Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant stands in Okuma Town, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Japan’s parliamentary-sanctioned investigation into the Fukushima nuclear disaster will submit recommendations today on the future of the country’s atomic power industry, which posted combined losses of 1.6 trillion yen ($20 billion) in the year ended March.

The six-month independent investigation, the first of its kind with wide-ranging subpoena powers in Japan’s constitutional history, held public hearings with former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s ex-president Masataka Shimizu, who gave conflicting accounts of the disaster response.

One question the report may address is what was the extent of the damage to the six reactor buildings in Fukushima from the magnitude-9 earthquake before the tsunami hit the plant. If the investigation finds earthquake-resistance standards at nuclear plants are insufficient, it would raise safety questions about all of Japan’s 50 reactors.

“Power utilities, as listed companies, would find it difficult to justify maintaining nuclear power generation if they cannot recover additional costs to raise quake-resistant levels,” Hirofumi Kawachi, a utilities analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co., said July 4 by phone.

Three other investigations led by the government, the utility and a private foundation said in reports published earlier that they found no evidence of major damage to reactor buildings and equipment at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station from last year’s March 11 quake. They concluded the plant was swamped by a 13-meter tsunami that followed the quake, knocking out backup power generation and causing the meltdown of three reactors.

Quake Damage

The commission, which will release its report today at 2 p.m. in Tokyo, has 10 members, including its chairman Tokyo University professor emeritus Kiyoshi Kurokawa. The group includes a seismologist and a former nuclear engineer who have warned of safety risks at atomic plants and have criticized the government and utilities in promoting a nuclear energy policy.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear equipment engineer at a unit of Hitachi Ltd. and a member of the commission, and Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, are among those who have said the quake may have caused more damage to the Fukushima plant than so far reported.

Tadashi Narabayashi, a former reactor safety researcher at Toshiba Corp. and now a nuclear engineering professor at Hokkaido University, disagrees.

Already Assessed

“I’m not expecting technically new findings from the panel as it doesn’t have many experts,” said Narabayashi, one of the members who assessed the effects of the March 11 quake on the Fukushima plant at a panel under the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. “It already became clear by our assessment that important facilities and equipment weren’t damaged.”

On another point in dispute between the government and the utility known as Tepco, the commission is likely to support the plant operator’s claim that they were not planning to completely evacuate and abandon the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station in the early days of the disaster as stated by former prime minister Kan.

“There is no evidence that Tepco decided on a so-called full withdrawal,” the commission said in a summary of issues released June 9, noting it was not a final conclusion. “Therefore, it cannot be said that Premier Kan prevented Tepco’s full withdrawal.”

It was the “sense of duty” among workers at the site that prompted them to stay and deal with the nuclear accident, it said in the statement.

Government Clash

Japan’s parliament in December appointed Kurokawa, a doctor of medicine, to head the investigative panel.

Kurokawa clashed with the government when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his cabinet approved a bill on Jan. 31 to create a new nuclear regulatory agency.

“It is very hard to understand how the cabinet decision has been made” before the panel finishes its investigation, Kurokawa said in the statement. One of the panel’s missions is to make recommendations including the reexamination of Japan’s nuclear policy and administrative organizations to prevent a future nuclear accident, Kurokawa said.

After amending the bill on the new regulator to give it more independence, the parliament passed the legislation on June 20. The new watchdog to be established as early as September, will replace the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission, two regulatory bodies criticized for their poor handling of the Fukushima disaster.

“It is ethically and politically difficult for lawmakers to completely ignore the panel’s recommendations” on how the new regulatory agency should work, Kawachi at Mizuho said.

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