more on the Tokyo Electric Power nuclear plants in Fukushima

In my post on March 15th, I suggested that as the story of the failure of the Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) nuclear plants in Fukushima unfolds, there was a good chance we would find out that faulty construction or substandard maintenance, deliberately disguised from public view, would be revealed.  I didn’t expect, however, that it would happen so quickly.

Yesterday’s New York Times contains an article titled “Japan Extended Reactor’s Life, Despite Warnings.” It makes the following points:

1.  The #1 TEPCO reactor at Fukushima had reached the end of its useful life (it’s a GE plant that was installed in 1971), but was approved by government regulators last month for another ten years of operation.  This was done despite design deficiencies that have been corrected in later models and worries about the backup diesel power generators.

2.  Shortly after regulators granted the extension, TEPCO said it had failed to properly inspect the cooling systems at all of the six Fukushima reactors.

3.  At the same time as they were approving the extension, regulators were criticizing TEPCO’s failure to properly inspect or maintain all the reactors.

4.  In a 2003 scandal, it came out that TEPCO had falsified reactor safety inspection reports over a sixteen year period in order to avoid spending money on repairs.

5.  The article suggests, correctly, in my view, that the failure to enforce regulations stems in part from the Japanese practice of amakudari, meaning “descent from heaven.”  Jobs in the Japanese government bureaucracy offer very high prestige but relatively low pay.  Customarily, at the end of long careers, senior bureaucrats “descend” to high-paying positions in one of the companies whose industry they formerly regulated.  In the case of utilities, the best of such jobs wold be with TEPCO.

Since a job with TEPCO may well be your future “pension plan,” a regulator has got to be conflicted about how strictly to enforce the rules.  Also, it may be difficult to refuse the request of your former boss–who has retired to be come in effect a lobbyist for TEPCO–when he asks for a lenient interpretation of a regulation.

I’m sure this won’t be the last we’ll hear on this topic.