IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A crisis in confidence at world's atomic watchdog

Eighteen months before Japan's radiation crisis, U.S. diplomats had lambasted the safety chief of the world's atomic watchdog for incompetence, especially when it came to the nuclear power industry in his homeland, Japan.
Image: aerial
Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is pictured before helicopters dump water on the stricken reactor to cool overheated fuel rods inside the core.KYDPL
/ Source: Reuters

Eighteen months before Japan's radiation crisis, U.S. diplomats had lambasted the safety chief of the world's atomic watchdog for incompetence, especially when it came to the nuclear power industry in his homeland, Japan.

Cables sent from the U.S. embassy in Vienna to Washington, which were obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, singled out Tomihiro Taniguchi, until last year head of safety and security at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"For the past 10 years, the Department has suffered tremendously because of (deputy director general) Taniguchi's weak management and leadership skills," said one despatch on Dec 1, 2009.

"Taniguchi has been a weak manager and advocate, particularly with respect to confronting Japan's own safety practices, and he is a particular disappointment to the United States for his unloved-step-child treatment of the Office of Nuclear Security," said another, which was sent on July 7, 2009.

The IAEA does not comment on the contents of leaked cables.

The evidence of concern about the Japanese national surfaced as his country scrambled to avert a lethal spread of radiation from earthquake-damaged nuclear reactors north of Tokyo.

Japan's crisis has brought scrutiny of its nuclear authorities and, in particular, the operator of the stricken reactors which has a history of falsifying data at its plants.

Separate cables quoted a Japanese lawmaker as telling visiting U.S. officials in October 2008 that power companies in Japan were hiding nuclear safety problems and being given an easy ride on commitments to renewable energy by the government.

Taro Kono, a supporter of renewable energy who in 2009 bid unsuccessfully for leadership of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), also said Japan had no solution for nuclear waste storage and asked if there was anywhere appropriate to store waste given that Japan was the "land of volcanoes".

Kono was not immediately available for comment.

The operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant now at the centre of the crisis, the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) , has had a rocky past in an industry plagued by scandal.

Five TEPCO executives resigned in 2002 over suspected falsification of nuclear plant safety records and five reactors were forced to stop operations.

In 2006, the government ordered TEPCO to check past data after it reported finding falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data was used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005.

Old rules, old reactors
The risk of earthquakes and tsunamis was already well known before last Friday's massive earthquake, but many of Japan's nuclear power plants, including the now-crippled Fukushima complex, were built before the most modern safety standards.

An unnamed IAEA official told the G8 Nuclear Safety and Security Group in December 2008 that guidelines for seismic safety had only been revised three times in the past 35 years and that the IAEA was re-examining them, another WikiLeak cable showed.

"Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work," the cable said.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said on Wednesday before leaving for Japan that the agency had been trying continuously to help improve the safety of nuclear plants against earthquakes.

A draft IAEA report on safety standards, published in October 2009, recommended that nuclear power plants be located more than 10 km (6 miles) from the sea or ocean shoreline, or more than 1 km from a lake or fjord shoreline; or at an elevation of more than 50 metres (164 feet) from the mean water level.

"To my knowledge, ALL of the nuclear power plants in Japan are located quite close to the ocean," said Daniel Aldrich, author of "Site fights", a book about how decisions were taken on where to build nuclear power plants in Japan and elsewhere.

"This is for two reasons: 1) normally, cooling pipes carry in seawater through the reactor unit and cool it off, and then dump the warmer water back in the ocean (these pipes are not functioning normally at this point), and 2) these areas are remote, far from high population density areas, and they have the least resistance from civil society," he said in emailed comments.

The latest IAEA recommendations are far more stringent than the original standards set for Japanese plants. The six reactors at the Dai-ichi facility were commissioned between 1971 and 1979, while two other Japanese nuclear reactors date back to 1970.

"An anomalous magnitude 9.0 scale is far beyond the assumed safety standard when Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station started up forty years ago," Yu Shibutani, director of Energy Geopolitics Ltd of Japan, said in an email to Reuters.

"The tsunami walls either should have been built higher, or the generators should have been placed on higher ground to withstand potential flooding, but it has failed.

"The accident exposes shortcomings in risk analysis as well as in engineering, and also the plant didn't meet safety standards in both quake and tsunami wall."