Special report: Fukushima long ranked most hazardous plant
By Chisa Fujioka and Kevin Krolicki â€“ Tue Jul 26, 5:41 pm ET
TOKYO (Reuters) â€“ Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant ranked as
one of the most dangerous in the world for radiation exposure years
before it was destroyed by the meltdowns and explosions that followed
the March 11 earthquake.
For five years to 2008, the Fukushima plant was rated the most
hazardous nuclear facility in Japan for worker exposure to radiation and
one of the five worst nuclear plants in the world on that basis. The next
rankings, compiled as a three-year average, are due this year.
Reuters uncovered these rankings, privately tracked by Fukushima's operator Tokyo Electric Power, in a
review of documents and presentations made at nuclear safety conferences over the past seven years.
In the United States -- Japan's early model in nuclear power -- Fukushima's lagging safety record would have
prompted more intensive inspections by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It would have also invited
scrutiny from the U.S. Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an independent nuclear safety organization
established by the U.S. power industry after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, experts say.
But that kind of stepped-up review never happened in Tokyo, where the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency
remains an adjunct of the trade ministry charged with promoting nuclear power.
As Japan debates its future energy policy after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, a Reuters review
of the long-troubled record at Fukushima shows how hard it has been to keep the country's oldest reactors
running in the best of times. It also shows how Japan's nuclear establishment sold nuclear power to the public
as a relatively cheap energy source in part by putting cost-containment ahead of radiation safety over the past
"After the Fukushima accident, we need to reconsider the cost of nuclear power," Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice
chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, told Reuters. "It's not enough to meet safety standards. The
industry needs to search for the best performance."
In an illustration of the scale of the safety problems at Fukushima, Tokyo Electric had set a 10-year goal that
insiders considered ambitious in 2007. The plan was to reduce radiation exposure for workers at Fukushima to
bring the facility from near rock-bottom in the industry's global safety rankings to somewhere below-average by
2017, documents show.
"Severer management than before will be required," Tokyo Electric safety researcher Yasunori Kokubun and
four other colleagues said in an English-language 2004 report. That report examined why Japan lagged other
countries such as France and the United States in limiting radiation exposure for workers during plant
The report came from an earlier period of corporate soul searching by Tokyo Electric, a politically powerful
regional monopoly in Japan that ran the Fukushima power station and remains in charge of the clean-up work
at the crippled plant expected to take a decade or more.
In 2002, the chairman and president of the utility were forced to step down after regulators concluded the
company had routinely filed false reports during safety inspections and hid evidence of trouble at its reactors,
including Fukushima. All 17 of Tokyo Electric's reactors were ordered shut down. The last of those did not
restart until 2005.
As part of a bid to win back public trust, the utility promised to repair a "safety culture" it said had failed in the
scandal. Teams of newly empowered radiation safety managers were created and began to audit the
company's nuclear operations, including Fukushima. They also reported back findings to other nuclear plant
company's nuclear operations, including Fukushima. They also reported back findings to other nuclear plant
operators and regulators. None of the utility's safety managers who gave those archived presentations
responded to requests for comment for this report.
One problem, according to one of those early assessments, was that Tokyo Electric's managers on the
ground tended to put cost savings ahead of a commitment to keep driving worker radiation doses "as low as
reasonably achievable," the international standard for safety.
Take maintenance, for instance. Japanese plants are required to shut down every 13 months for almost four
months at a time -- twice as long as the U.S. average. Tepco was slow to invest in the more expensive
radiation safety precautions needed during maintenance, thus lowering the cost of operating Fukushima before
But that focus on costs also kept Tepco from developing a more active commitment to worker safety that
could have helped it navigate the March disaster, officials now say.
After the earthquake, contract workers at Fukushima were sent in without radiation meters or basic gear such
as rubber boots. Screening for radiation from dust and vapor inhaled by workers was delayed for weeks until
experts said the testing was almost meaningless. At least 39 workers were exposed to more than 100
millisieverts of radiation, five times the maximum allowed in a normal year.
Fukushima Daiichi, built in a poor region on Japan's Pacific Coast to supply power to Tokyo, was pushed into
crisis by the massive March 11 earthquake and the tsunami that hit less than an hour later. The backup power
systems meant to keep its radioactive fuel cool were disabled, leading to meltdowns, explosions and radiation
spewing into the environment, forcing the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents.
Goshi Hosono, the government minister appointed to coordinate Japan's response to the Fukushima crisis,
said he was not aware of the details of Fukushima's radiation safety record before March 11 and declined to
comment on that basis.
But he said the utility had failed to protect workers in the chaos that followed the accident, prompting a
reprimand from government officials and a decision by regulators to take charge of radiation health monitoring
at the plant.
"In normal times, radiation monitoring would be left to the plant operator, but these are not normal times,"
Hosono told Reuters.
HIGHER RADIATION IN OLD PLANTS
In a June report to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Japanese officials said basic design failures, a
fatal underestimation of tsunami risk and a chaotic decision-making process had contributed to the disaster.
But they also said Tokyo Electric's "safety culture" had failed it again.
Outside experts agreed. "The main root causes of this man-made disaster can be found in (Tokyo Electric's)
ineffective -- exemplary poor -- safety practices and track record," said Najim Meshkati, an engineering
professor at the University of Southern California and former U.S. government science advisor.
In response to questions about the radiation safety record at Fukushima, Tokyo Electric said that radiation
exposure for each individual worker at the plant had been kept below the regulatory standard. The overall
radiation level remained relatively high because the plant's six reactors were all between 30 and 40 years old
at the time of the accident, the utility said.
"Because it was an older plant it required longer maintenance periods and more intensive repair work," Tokyo
Electric spokeswoman Ryoko Sakai said. "For that reason, the overall radiation exposure was higher than our
The General Electric-derived design of the reactors at Fukushima posed a particular safety challenge during
routine shutdowns because radioactive steam is allowed to circulate through the power-generating turbine.
That means that large parts of the power plant pose a radiation risk during repairs, experts say.
But even compared to other boiling water reactors, Fukushima stood out for its risks. At the start of the
decade, each of its reactors had exposed workers to 2.5 times the amount of radiation they would have faced
in an average U.S. reactor of the same design. By 2009, that gap had narrowed, but exposure at Fukushima
was still 1.7 times the U.S. average and equivalent to subjecting workers on the site to a collective 1,500 fullbody
CT scans each year.
Because of Fukushima's high radiation, Tokyo Electric brought in thousands of workers each year, often to
work just a few days on the most hazardous jobs. The utility employed almost 9,000 contract workers
annually on average at the plant over the past decade, according to records kept by Japan's trade ministry.
Those workers were needed in part to allow Tokyo Electric to meet the international safety standard Japan
had committed to in 2001. Under that standard, workers were limited to 20 millisieverts of radiation exposure
in an average year, equivalent to getting two CT scans at work.
But even with its extraordinary work force, the average contract worker at Fukushima was exposed to 73
percent more radiation than the average nuclear worker at other plants in Japan over the past decade,
according to a Reuters review of data from Japan's trade and industry ministry. The same worker was also
exposed to almost three times the amount of radiation that Tokyo Electric's own staff faced. The average
radiation dose ran almost a third higher than for U.S. workers at similar plants.
The number of Fukushima workers near the annual limit for radiation also remained troublingly high. Over the
past five years, each Fukushima reactor exposed almost 300 workers to between 10 and 20 millisieverts of
radiation, the Reuters review of the data showed. The comparable figure for U.S. reactors of similar design was
just 22 workers per reactor with those kinds of exposure levels.
'THIS SITUATION IS THE WORST'
Part of the reason was that Fukushima maintenance work took almost three times longer than comparable
jobs at U.S. plants -- more than four months on average. But American utilities have also spent heavily as a
group on steps to reduce worker exposure, including building mock-up reactors so workers could rehearse
dangerous jobs almost as commandos would.
"We are ready and willing to spend money to reduce worker doses," said John Bickel, a nuclear safety expert
who has consulted for the NRC and the IAEA. "I would characterize that there is an intense competition in the
U.S. to be the lowest."
By contrast, critics of the Japanese nuclear industry cite records showing how Tokyo Electric and other
utilities shifted the health risks of operating nuclear plants to a group of relatively poor and sometimes
homeless day laborers desperate for a quick payday.
"Nuclear power is based on discrimination, a system in which the people who are working to protect nuclear
safety end up on the streets and are given the cold shoulder by society. All of us who use electricity are
responsible for this system," said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at Keio University who has
campaigned for nuclear worker safety in Japan for over 20 years.
To be sure, Tokyo Electric had taken steps to reduce the amount of radiation workers faced. It changed the
chemistry of water piped through the reactors to reduce corrosion in pipes. It developed robots and remotecontrolled
probes to inspect hazards rather than sending in workers. And it used radiation shields such as
lead "blankets" wrapped around pipes during maintenance to limit radiation in places workers had to be.
Those measures had reduced the overall radiation exposure for workers at Fukushima to a third of the 1978
peak by the start of the past decade, the records show.
But by 2006, Tokyo Electric safety managers had decided that they had to take on a tougher problem to
make any more progress. They needed to reform the basic organization of the utility, where maintenance
managers faced no pressure to meet targets for reducing radiation exposure for the thousands of contractors
and day laborers, two reports show.
The only more dangerous plants from 2003 to 2005 on that basis had been the Tarapur nuclear plant in India,
where two reactors shared the basic Fukushima design, and the Perry nuclear plant on Lake Erie outside
Perry, which is operated by FirstEnergy Corp, was cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a series of
safety mistakes during a maintenance period in April. In that incident, regulators said four workers were
exposed to high levels of radiation after being sent to retrieve a radiation monitor near the reactor's core. The
plant has been the target of NRC safety inspections for more than three years because of what U.S.
regulators call "human performance" issues in safety management.
COMPLACENCY SETS IN
Tokyo Electric did not come to terms with its own management and organizational problems related to safety
until recent years, the record shows.
Shiro Takahira, a Tokyo Electric manager in charge of radiation safety, showed a conference in October 2006
a chart depicting Fukushima Daiichi as the third-worst nuclear plant in the world in terms of worker exposure
"This graph could be a good driving force to improve our process," Takahira told the radiation safety
conference in Niigata, Japan, according to remarks posted by the organizer. Takahira said Tokyo Electric had
traditionally "put more weight on cost effectiveness" than the need to keep driving radiation exposure down.
"There has been no standard mechanism to promote (the standard of 'as low as reasonably achievable')
systematically and continuously," he said.
By late 2006, radiation safety managers such as Takahira had won a seat at the table in planning repair jobs
at nuclear plants including Fukushima. By 2007, the company set a goal of getting the annual radiation at
each Fukushima reactor to about 2.5 sieverts, a more manageable dose equivalent to about 250 CT scans for
workers. That would mean Fukushima was still lagging the industry but by a narrower margin.
The full-year radiation for 2008 and 2009 came in just below 2.5 sieverts of per reactor just under
the goal managers had set in 2007. On a three-year rolling basis, the exposure was 2.53 sieverts per reactor
between 2007 to 2009.
"We had largely reached our target by 2009," said Tokyo Electric's Sakai.
At that point, some of the urgency behind the safety campaign appeared to drain. "We'll continue to try to
reduce occupational exposures by every possible measure after cost performance evaluations," Shunsuke
Hori, a Tokyo Electric safety manager, said at a September 2009 conference in Aomori, Japan.
Hori was one of two Tokyo Electric safety managers who published what amounted to a declaration of victory
after the nascent effort to improve radiation safety.
"The reliability of Japanese nuclear plants is now quite high," Hori and another Tokyo Electric manager, Akira
Suzuki, wrote in a radiation health journal. "The Japanese nuclear industry has over 40 years of radiation
protection experience, and it is believed that more radiation control will be possible in the future using this
The upbeat assessment was published in a little-read scientific journal, Radiation Protection Dosimetry, on
April 26, 2011, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
On the ground in Fukushima that day, white smoke was still steaming off three of the reactors, and residents
to the northwest had started a wider round of evacuations.
(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Eileen O'Grady in Houston) (Editing by Bill Tarrant)
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