Image: Damaged No. 4 unit of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant
AP
The damaged No. 4 unit of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is seen in Okumamachi, Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan, on March 24. Nearly 10 years after Japan's top utility first assured the government that its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was safe from any tsunami, regulators were just getting around to checking out the claim.
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updated 5/1/2011 1:29:03 PM ET 2011-05-01T17:29:03

Nearly 10 years after Japan's top utility first assured the government that its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was safe from any tsunami, regulators were just getting around to checking out the claim. The move was too little, too late.

But even if there had been scrutiny years before the fury of an earthquake-powered wave swamped the six atomic reactors at Fukushima on March 11, it is almost certain the government wouldn't have challenged the unrealistic analysis that Tokyo Electric Power Co. had submitted in 2001. An Associated Press review of Japan's approach to nuclear plant safety shows how closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail.

Regulators simply didn't see it as their role to pick apart the utility's raw data and computer modeling to judge for themselves whether the plant was sufficiently protected from tsunami. The policy amounted to this: Trust plant operator TEPCO — and don't worry about verifying its math or its logic.

This kind of willful ignorance was not unique within a sympathetic bureaucracy at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The agency has multiple functions — some that can easily be viewed as having conflicting goals. The ministry is charged with touting the benefits of nuclear energy, selling Japanese technology to other countries — and regulating domestic nuclear plant safety.

Until January, it was led by a former engineer in the nuclear plant design section at Hitachi Ltd.

The ministry's promoter-regulator conflict makes Japan unusual among nuclear power-producing countries. The United States split those two functions nearly four decades ago with the closure of its Atomic Energy Commission; now the U.S. Department of Energy promotes nuclear power while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission handles safety. France separated the two functions several years ago, removing its nuclear regulator from the government bureaucracy and making it an independent authority.

In Japan, where a government until recently dominated by a business-friendly ruling party has long supported major industries, the power utilities that run nuclear plants have enjoyed direct access to regulators.

Both regulator and regulated share an interest in promoting nuclear as a greenhouse gas-free energy source that reduces the island nation's heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Regulator and regulated also share people.

In a practice known in Japanese as amakudari, which translates as "descent from heaven," top government officials nearing the end of their careers land plum jobs within the industries they regulated, giving Japan's utilities intimate familiarity with their overseers. Meanwhile, top industry officials are appointed to positions on policy-shaping government advisory panels. Pre-tsunami promises to crack down on amakudari have yet to be fulfilled.

All countries with nuclear power sectors have a limited group of people who participate in a highly complex industry. That finite universe means some experts inevitably move between the public and private sectors.

Countries with fledgling nuclear programs, such as in Eastern Europe, tend to see initial movement between regulator and regulated that slows as the program matures, according to Ken E. Brockman, until recently the International Atomic Energy Agency's director of nuclear installation safety.

American law restricts which jobs outgoing regulators can hold in the private sector. A high-level manager at the U.S. NRC would have to wait a year after leaving the agency before representing a private sector entity before it; former NRC employees can never appear before the federal government and represent the public sector on a specific issue — such as a contract or license application — they handled while at the agency.

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In Japan, the "revolving door" spins freely.

Toru Ishida became an adviser at TEPCO in January, just four months after retiring as the head of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, the ministry organization that promotes the nuclear industry; after becoming a post-tsunami symbol for amakudari, he resigned. Ishida wasn't the first senior energy agency official to depart for the utility. Susumu Shirakawa held a senior agency post before he joined the TEPCO board and eventually became a vice president.

The AP review of relationships on both sides of the nuclear power establishment shows that industry people ascend to regulatory posts as well.

AP examined the business and institutional ties of 95 people currently at three main nuclear regulatory bodies, either as bureaucrats or members of policy-setting advisory panels. Overall, 26 of them have been affiliated either with the industry or groups that promote nuclear power, typically with government funding. AP also came across 24 people with prior positions at those three regulatory bodies — one-third of whom had connections to industry or pro-nuclear groups.

Industry is heavily involved elsewhere in Japan's government. At the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which backs research and promotes Japan's nuclear industry, one of the five commissioners is an adviser to TEPCO, while another is a former executive at the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry.

"TEPCO participates when its expertise is required on various panels related to nuclear issues," said Linda Gunter, a TEPCO spokeswoman until April 20, when she too resigned.

A spokesman for Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, an industry group which includes former utilities employees, said regulatory panels need insiders because nuclear energy is a specialized field.

"It's the question of balance," spokesman Kiyoshi Sato said. "Hearing from a different viewpoint can be refreshing."

Perhaps no one illustrates the movement between business and government — and back — better than Tokio Kano. He joined TEPCO in 1957, became a leader in the utility's nuclear unit in 1989, and by 1998 entered Japan's parliament as a candidate for a seat given to the nation's largest business lobbying group.

In parliament, Kano helped rewrite national policy that enshrined nuclear as the energy of Japan's future.

After two six-year terms, he returned to TEPCO as an adviser in July. The utility declined to make him available for an interview.

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The aftermath of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami may finally persuade a nation long enchanted with nuclear power that intimate ties between regulator and regulated can create significant potential conflicts of interest.

The government's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, promised recently to curb the ability of bureaucrats to depart for jobs at utilities.

"Regardless of whether this is illegal or not, this should not be allowed," he told reporters.

As Fukushima Dai-ichi deteriorated into a disaster as serious as Chernobyl, the main spokesman at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency maintained that the regulatory structure was fine. But after a month, NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama wavered.

"Our thinking up to now was that safety will be maintained by the same group that both promotes and regulates the industry," Nishiyama said.

That attitude was partly a produce of Japan's post-World War II economic progress. This is a nation that prides itself on technological prowess, attention to detail and success based on honest work.

Under Japan's nuclear regulatory system, NISA carries out plant inspections once every 13 months and checks on safety measures every quarter. There are no surprise inspections, though inspectors visit plants routinely. Utilities have been ordered to shut plants temporarily after safety problems and cover-up scandals, and they have paid damages.

In 2002, after TEPCO was found to be misrepresenting inspection videotape and other records, the maximum that companies could be fined for a false report was raised to 100 million yen ($1.2 million). No utility has received that penalty and TEPCO has never paid any fines related to falsifying records.

What TEPCO did do in 2002 was clean house — at least symbolically — by firing its leadership. But in what the Japanese call "the nuclear village," people take care of their own. Three top executives who departed the utility in disgrace found their way back. Currently advising TEPCO are Nobuya Minami, Hiroshi Araki and Toshiaki Enomoto — the former president, chairman and vice president who resigned amid the scandal.

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To be sure, despite a series of serious cover-ups by Japan's utilities, the nuclear industry here is not regarded as dangerously under-regulated. In fact, there is layer upon layer of bureaucracy in the national government.

But that means regulators can be so slow to act that the utilities effectively self-regulate.

That's what happened with the tsunami threat to Fukushima Dai-ichi.

TEPCO told NISA in a one-page memo it voluntarily submitted in December 2001 that waves would not exceed 5.7 meters (18 feet), according to Masaru Kobayashi, head of the agency's nuclear power plant safety section. On March 11, the water reached 14 meters (46 feet) above sea level at the plant, knocking out backup power generators to the reactors, causing a cascade of problems that has led to the ongoing release of radiation into the environment.

TEPCO's memo didn't include anything about its data or assumptions of earthquake size and location — vital details to determine whether the calculations made sense.

NISA, the government regulator, neither demanded the information nor scrutinized the guidelines TEPCO used in its calculations. If regulators had looked, they would have found that 22 of the 35 people on the committee that wrote the guidelines had strong ties to the nuclear power industry. Among them, three were from TEPCO and one was from an affiliate of the utility; 13 more were from Japan's other electric power companies.

To hear NISA's Kobayashi tell it, the safety regulator did not thoroughly analyze TEPCO's tsunami memo.

"We do not know the contents of that assessment," Kobayashi said in an interview. "We had been planning to do our tsunami-related review."

Those discussions had been delegated to several of the 99 committees at NISA that scrutinize nuclear plant safety. They were going to start this year, Kobayashi said.

Despite the sprawling committee structure, panelists were typically familiar faces drawn from a network of utilities, government bureaucracies, business-affiliated research groups and elite universities.

In these committees, the process of setting safety policy can feel like a Kabuki play, without the artistry — a long, slow dance heavy on formality. Rare voices of doubt were almost always dismissed.

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Many times, regulation has been reactive, not proactive. For example, in 2007, NISA's committees began focusing on seismic dangers — but only after an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused radioactive leaks, a minor fire and wall cracks at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, another sprawling nuclear power complex run by TEPCO.

That 6.8 magnitude earthquake was stronger than TEPCO had said was possible. That miscalculation reinforced concerns about the safety of nuclear plants, which provide about 30 percent of Japan's electricity. Already, the public was growing leery of the industry based on episodes going back at least two decades in which utilities including TEPCO faked safety inspections and covered up known damage.

Tasked with reviewing the earthquake and tsunami preparedness of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors, NISA went to work — at a drawn-out pace that lacked urgency and deep scrutiny of many important issues.

Six "subgroup committees" looked at earthquakes and tsunami standards. The subgroups reported to three "working groups," which held bigger meetings. Overseeing those working groups was an additional committee.

Transcripts of the meetings show members rarely challenged one another — in Japanese culture, embarrassing others publicly can be considered shameful.

During nearly four years of panel discussions, the groups focused on issues such as plants' ability to withstand shaking, and measures of geological fault lines. Concern about nuclear plants being vulnerable to tsunami waves that have battered Japan following major quakes came up just once, according to AP's review of meeting records, interviews with several panel members and NISA's own accounting.

At a June 2009 meeting, Yukinobu Okamura, a tsunami expert at a major government institute, asked why his fellow panelists were excluding the massive Jogan tsunami in 869 A.D. from consideration of the kind of waves Fukushima Dai-ichi could face.

"I would like to ask why you have not touched on this at all," Okamura demanded of the panel. "I find it unacceptable."

A TEPCO official, identified only by his last name, Nishimura, retorted that damage from Jogan wasn't extensive — a claim Okamura rebutted.

The NISA official presiding over the panel ordered more discussions. That never happened.

NISA wasn't alone in its use of expert panels. Another regulator that uses them is the Nuclear Safety Commission, which is smaller and more academic than NISA, and is housed in the prime minister's Cabinet Office.

In the current situation, the NSC has often seemed impotent. It has defended itself by saying that day-to-day crisis management must come from TEPCO — and that it is up to NISA to guide TEPCO.

Its chief, Haruki Madarame, was until last year a prominent University of Tokyo professor, whose research has focused on winning social acceptance for nuclear power by better communication on safety.

Madarame's former university has been a primary source for the ministry bureaucrats and professors on government advisory panels that shaped tsunami and earthquake safety policies. And TEPCO was an important donor to the University of Tokyo.

Among TEPCO's donations, according to university records released in March: 150 million yen ($1.8 million) over five years to the university's Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Society Laboratory, which promotes nuclear power; and 40 million yen ($470,000) to an architectural institute headed by a former manager in TEPCO's energy sales section. A current TEPCO employee works on a university project researching power networks; TEPCO, along with two other companies, has donated 150 million yen ($1.8 million) to the effort.

AP's review of transcripts of panel meetings at the NSC shows the presence and influence of another academic not obviously affiliated with the nuclear industry.

Research by Yoshihiro Kinugasa, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and veteran on regulatory panels, tended to underestimate fault line lengths — thus helping reduce projected earthquake risks for nuclear power plants.

Kinugasa, a key member of regulatory panels since 1984, said in a recent interview his studies on fault lines near nuclear plants were unrelated to the problems at Fukushima Dai-ichi, caused by a fault about 220 miles (350 kilometers) off the coast. He said the panels are staffed by qualified experts who constantly review the latest science.

At a five-hour meeting in August 2006, Kinugasa was challenged by Kobe University professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi, who requested a re-examination of issues including fault lines.

"That argument basically sounds like going over the same thing," Kinugasa said. "Spending any more time on the matter I think would be a waste of time."

Ishibashi wasn't impressed, and quit the panel later that year, complaining that contrary opinion was not tolerated.

___

Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Troy Thibodeaux in New Orleans and AP news researchers Barbara Sambriski in New York and Julie Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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