Vindicated Seismologist Says Japan Still Underestimates Threat to Reactors
Dismissed as a “nobody” by Japan’s nuclear industry, seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi spent two decades watching his predictions of disaster come true: First in the 1995 Kobe earthquake and then at Fukushima. He says the government still doesn’t get it.
The 67-year-old scientist recalled in an interview how his boss marched him to the Construction Ministry to apologize for writing a 1994 book suggesting Japan’s building codes put its cities at risk. Five months later, thousands were killed when a quake devastated Kobe city. The book, “A Seismologist Warns,” became a bestseller.
That didn’t stop Haruki Madarame, now head of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, from dismissing Ishibashi as an amateur when he warned of a “nuclear earthquake disaster,” a phrase the Kobe University professor coined in 1997. Ishibashi says Japan still underestimates the risk of operating reactors in a country that has about 10 percent of the world’s quakes.
“What was missing -- and is still missing -- is a recognition of the danger,” Ishibashi said, seated in a dining room stacked with books in his house in a Kobe suburb. “I understand we’re not going to shut all of the nuclear plants, but we should rank them by risk and phase out the worst.”
Among Japan’s most vulnerable reactors are some of its oldest, built without the insights of modern earthquake science, Ishibashi said. It was only in the last four years that Japan Atomic Power Co. recognized an active fault line running under its reactor in Tsuruga, which opened in 1970 about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northeast of Osaka and close to a lake that supplies water to millions of people in the region.
New Fault Lines
Japan Atomic is reinforcing the plant to improve quake tolerance and believes it’s safe despite the discovery of new active faults lines in 2008, Masao Urakami, a Tokyo-based spokesman for the utility, said.
“We can’t respond to every claim by every scientist,” he said. “Standards for seismic ground motion are not decided arbitrarily, but are based on findings by experts assigned by the government.”
Reactor 1 at the Tsuruga plant, which had its license extended for 10 years in 2009, is one of 13 on Wakasa bay, a stretch of Sea of Japan coast that is home to the world’s heaviest concentration of nuclear reactors. The area is riddled with fault lines found in the last three or four years, according to Ishibashi.
In the first annual review of energy policy since the Fukushima disaster, the government on Oct. 28 approved a white paper calling for reduced reliance on nuclear power. The report also omitted a section on nuclear power expansion that was in last year’s review.
The government “regrets its past energy policy and will review it with no sacred cows,” the report said.
The white paper needs to be followed with action, Ishibashi said. “Changing the energy policy is a good thing, but I really do wonder if there will be follow-through,” he said.
Opinion polls show the Fukushima disaster has turned the majority of Japanese against nuclear power. Companies, meantime, are worried about higher costs and unstable electricity supply. The country has no oil reserves and 30 percent of Japan’s electricity supply came from atomic energy before March 11.
Japan without nuclear energy may add as much as 1.7 trillion yen ($22 billion) a year to the power bill for industry, the Japan Iron and Steel Federation said in July.
Threat to Move
Komatsu Ltd. (6301), the world’s No. 2 maker of construction machinery, has said it will move overseas if stable electricity supply isn’t guaranteed. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said on Sept. 2 that some reactors shut down after the March disaster will have to restart to keep the economy going.
“These plants are a calculated risk,” says Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center in Los Angeles. “Japan has been reasonably thoughtful but they obviously have problems with earthquakes and they have underestimated the risks. Still you have to ask the question: what is the risk of depending on other sources of power?”
Flipping through binders of press clippings in a black T- shirt and grey slacks, Ishibashi said he still remembers his fear of quakes when he was a boy. He slept with a flashlight next to his pillow in case he had to escape in the night.
“There was a radio broadcast that night saying Japan didn’t have enough earthquake experts,” he said, adjusting his steel-rimmed glasses. “I decided I’d do that.”
It was 1964. Modern seismology was getting started and Japan was halfway through building its first nuclear reactor. By the time Ishibashi got his doctorate in seismology from the University of Tokyo 12 years later, there were 24 reactors running or under construction, including six at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station.
Seismologists at the time still focused on written records, rather than geological history, for clues about where and when quakes struck. And it wasn’t until 1977 that mainstream scientists had the tools to measure the size of quakes like the magnitude-9 that triggered the Fukushima disaster.
The Richter scale used before then went only to 8.5, or about 6 times less energy than the March 11 quake.
“So all of a sudden everyone knew that, hey, there are magnitude-9 earthquakes in the world,” said Robert Geller, a professor of geophysics at the University of Tokyo. “They didn’t know that when they built the nuclear power plants at Fukushima or other plants from that era. But when that became known they should have done some rethinking.”
Minutes of a June 2009 trade ministry meeting on safety at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant show Tokyo Electric and the regulator ignored scientific findings that emerged after the power station was built.
“We didn’t think the damage would be that significant,” said Isao Nishimura, a manager at the utility’s nuclear earthquake resistance technology center, when asked at the meeting why its safety review omitted studies showing the area had a history of major earthquakes and tsunami.
Debate was cut short by an official from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by Bloomberg News. The regulator approved Fukushima Dai-Ichi’s safety report a month later, despite studies by Tohoku University geologist Koji Minoura in the 1990s that showed giant tsunami had hit Japan’s northeast coast three times in the last 3,000 years.
“That’s about one every 1,000 years on average,” said Geller. “If you’ve got a plant that runs 50 years, you have a 5 percent chance. You’re talking about Russian roulette.”
Disregard for the science extended to a government panel started in 2001 to revise seismic engineering standards for Japan’s nuclear plants, said Ishibashi. He quit the panel after five years of debate that he called rigged and unscientific.
The revised seismic standards didn’t reflect evidence that earthquakes could occur in areas where there were no signs of active faults. The omission allowed the utilities to carry on without undertaking expensive retrofits, Ishibashi says.
“The point I was trying to make was that if you’re going to have nuclear plants here in Japan, they should be built to withstand the most severe shaking that’s been observed,” he said, recalling the date he resigned from the panel in exasperation on Aug. 28, 2006. “They tried to chip away at that as much as they could,” he said.
Worst Case Scenario
Masanori Hamada, a Waseda University engineering professor who also served on the panel, said there were reasons for not adopting Ishibashi’s views.
“I understood what Ishibashi was saying, but if we engineered factoring in every possible worst case scenario, nothing would get built,” Hamada said. “What engineers look for is consensus from the seismologists and we don’t get that.”
The Fukushima disaster is forcing a rethink in the U.S. nuclear industry. A task force for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the disaster recommended in July that U.S. utilities re-evaluate earthquake hazards every 10 years.
“At this point there is no requirement to re-review basic seismic design information,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said by e-mail.
In June, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission instructed its experts to review guidelines for earthquake and tsunami defenses at nuclear plants.
License to Operate
There are no plans to introduce regular seismic reviews as the U.S. proposes, said a commission official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and declined to be identified.
“The nuclear industry has tended to give you a license and then once you have that license you are deemed safe,” said Norm Abrahamson, a seismologist at the University of California at Berkeley and an adviser at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state’s biggest utility.
“Nuclear plants are such huge investments that operators need some assurance of getting their money back,” Abrahamson said. “They’re looking for what they would call regulatory stability, but regulatory stability and scientific change don’t go hand in hand.”
Ishibashi says he didn’t start out as a critic of Japan’s nuclear industry. In 1976, when the then 31-year-old researcher at Tokyo University made his first important discovery -- that a fault line west of Tokyo was much bigger than assumed -- the risk to Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka prefecture didn’t occur to him. The plant had opened that year above the fault.
His view changed after a magnitude-6.9 quake killed more than 5,500 people on Jan. 17, 1995, and toppled sections of elevated expressway.
After a disaster that Japanese engineers had said couldn’t happen, the nuclear regulator didn’t immediately re-evaluate its construction standards. It said the plants were “safe from the ground up,” as the title of a 1995 Science Ministry pamphlet put it. Ishibashi decided to investigate.
The result was an article on Hamaoka published in the October 1997 issue of Japan’s Science Journal that reads like a post-mortem of the Fukushima disaster: A major quake could knock out external power to the plant’s reactors and unleash a tsunami that could overrun its 6-meter defenses, swamping backup diesel generators and leading to loss of cooling and meltdowns.
When the local prefecture questioned industry experts about Ishibashi’s paper, the response was that he didn’t need to be taken seriously.
Ishibashi a ‘Nobody’
“In the field of nuclear engineering, Mr. Ishibashi is a nobody,” Madarame said in a 1997 letter to the Shizuoka Legislature. Madarame, then a professor at the University of Tokyo school of engineering, is now in charge of nuclear safety in the country.
Requests made to Madarame’s office in October for an interview on his current views of Ishibashi’s work were declined.
On Oct. 24, Madarame was asked after a regular press briefing for the commission if he’d changed his opinion about Ishibashi.
“Because of the accident there’s a need to take another look at things, including the earthquake engineering guidelines, and we’re doing that,” he said. “Ishibashi contributed a lot to the revisions to the earthquake guidelines and his comments there are important.” He declined to comment further.
Hamaoka’s reactors, the subject of Ishibashi’s 1997 report, were shut in May after then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan went on television to publicly plead with Chubu Electric to close the plant. The utility estimates it will cost 100 billion yen and 18 months to build a seawall around the reactors.
Now Professor Emeritus at Kobe University, Ishibashi said he hasn’t much time for hiking or other hobbies as his schedule is packed with speaking engagements.
The message he gives to business leaders and politicians is the focus on tsunami risk after Fukushima has deflected attention from the fundamental issue: The danger of having more than 50 nuclear reactors in one of the world’s most earthquake- prone countries.
At a private meeting with the Kobe Chamber of Commerce at a Chinese restaurant on July 31, Ishibashi planned to talk through a slide presentation on the risk associated with the 13 nuclear reactors on Wakasa Bay up the coast, nine of which are more than 30 years old.
The reactors, which keep factories running for companies including Panasonic Corp. (6752) and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. (7012) as well as powering the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, are in an area that has had at least five magnitude-7 and magnitude-8 quakes over the last 500 years.
Ishibashi said he got through only a few of his 36 Power Point slides before his time was up and dinner started. He was seated at a round table next to the chairman of one of Japan’s biggest companies, who Ishibashi asked not be identified because the meeting was private.
“‘I know you want the reactors shut,’” he said the chairman told him. “‘But it can’t happen. We need the electricity.’”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Clenfield in Tokyo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Teo Chian Wei at email@example.com