Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Safety Culture at Tohoku Electric vs. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)

Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi)
An op-ed* in the Japan Times asserts that the root cause of the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) plant’s failures following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami was TEPCO’s weak corporate safety culture (SC).  This post summarizes the op-ed then provides some background information and our perspective.

Op-Ed Summary 

According to the authors, Tohoku Electric had a stronger SC than TEPCO.  Tohoku had a senior manager who strongly advocated safety, company personnel participated in seminars and panel discussions about earthquake and tsunami disaster prevention, and the company had strict disaster response protocols in which all workers were trained.  Although their Onagawa plant was closer to the March 11, 2011 quake epicenter and experienced a higher tsunami, it managed to shut down safely.

SC-related initiatives like Tohoku’s were not part of TEPCO’s culture.  Fukushima No. 1’s problems date back to its original siting and early construction.  TEPCO removed 25 meters off the 35 meter natural seawall of the plant site and built its reactor buildings at a lower elevation of 10 meters (compared to 14.7m for Onagawa).  Over the plant’s life, as research showed that tsunami levels had been underestimated, TEPCO “resorted to delaying tactics, such as presenting alternative scientific studies and lobbying”** rather than implementing countermeasures.

Background and Our Perspective

The op-ed is a condensed version of the authors’ longer paper***, which was adapted from a research paper for an engineering class, presumably written by Ms. Ryu.  The op-ed is basically a student paper based on public materials.  You should read the longer paper, review the references and judge for yourself if the authors have offered conclusions that go beyond the data they present.

I suggest you pay particular attention to the figure that supposedly compares Tohoku and TEPCO using INPO’s ten healthy nuclear SC traits.  Not surprisingly, TEPCO doesn’t fare very well but note the ratings were based on “the author’s personal interpretations and assumptions” (p. 26)

Also note that the authors do not mention Fukushima No. 2 (Daini), a four-unit TEPCO plant about 15 km south of Fukushima No. 1.  Fukushima No. 2 also experienced damage and significant challenges after being hit by a 9m tsunami but managed to reach shutdown by March 18, 2011.  What could be inferred from that experience?  Same corporate culture but better luck?

Bottom line, by now it’s generally agreed that TEPCO SC was unacceptably weak so the authors plow no new ground in that area.  However, their description of Tohoku Electric’s behavior is illuminating and useful.


*  A. Ryu and N. Meshkati, “Culture of safety can make or break nuclear power plants,” Japan Times (Mar. 14, 2014).  Retrieved Mar. 19, 2014.

**  Quoted in the op-ed but taken from “The official report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission [NAIIC] Executive Summary” (The National Diet of Japan, 2012), p. 28.  The NAIIC report has a longer Fukushima root cause explanation than the op-ed, viz, “the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, . . .” (p. 16) and “The underlying issue is the social structure that results in “regulatory capture,” and the organizational, institutional, and legal framework that allows individuals to justify their own actions, hide them when inconvenient, and leave no records in order to avoid responsibility.” (p. 21)  IMHO, if this were boiled down, there wouldn’t be much SC left in the bottom of the pot.

***  A. Ryu and N. Meshkati, “Why You Haven’t Heard About Onagawa Nuclear Power Station after the Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011” (Rev. Feb. 26, 2014).

1 comment:

  1. Lew,

    Thank you for elaborating on this recent item. I particularly want to take note of the expanded description of cause you cite from the NAIIC Report. While I think the Commission took a bold and needed stance about the too chummy state of nuclear program relations between TEPCO and the METI (responsible government ministry that included the nuclear oversight organization), I did regret that it chose to frame the issues involved in terms of western origin like "regulatory capture" and "nuclear safety culture."

    From what we know today, not every nuclear site had evolved under the same corporate value systems; nor did they emerge at a single point along the industry learning curve. What anyone who has followed post-WWII Japan's economic recovery would know is that it has had a strongly centralized industrial policy.

    But apparently this policy was not applied uniformly, or at least did not result in a single monolithic nuclear energy insider culture. But you would not know this from the One-Size-Fits-All rush to the strong independent nuclear regulator model of the US.

    Without a lot more historical insight about the differences observable with each nuclear operator and in the different local jurisdictions I, for one, am loathe to conclude that I gain much understanding from such simple conclusions statements as are quoted from the NAIIC or Ms. Ryu.

    It seems to me that in the past three years there has been too much rush to judgment from the US and IAEA about what needs improvement in Japan. There's is a strong and proud culture. They've done a lot of things very right (like 300 bullet trains per day from Tokyo to Osaka) what culture accounts for those achievements? I would learn more from watching them fix these issues from within their own programmatic strengths rather than watching them try to become more IAEA like just because we outnumber them.

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