Japanese operator in most frank admission over nuclear disaster

Fri Dec 14, 2012 3:24am EST

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* Tepco "completely admits" report's finding on shortcomings

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By Aaron Sheldrick

TOKYO, Dec 14 (Reuters) - The operator of a Japanese nuclear power plant that blew up after a tsunami last year said on Friday its lack of safety and bad habits were behind the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, its most forthright admission of culpability.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said it accepted the findings of a parliamentary inquiry into the Fukushima nuclear disaster that accused the company of "collusion" with industry regulators.

An earthquake on March 11 last year generated a tsunami that smashed into the nuclear plant on Japan's northeast coast and triggered equipment failures that led to meltdowns and the spewing of large amounts of radiation into the air and sea.

Takefumi Anegawa, the head of a company reform task force, told a news conference the report by a parliamentary committee contained "so many descriptions about the lack of a safety culture and our bad habits".

"We admit, we completely admit, that part of the parliamentary report," Anegawa, told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.

He was responding to a question on whether the company accepted the parliamentary committee's findings that the disaster was preventable and the result of "collusion" between the company and regulators.

Tepco President Naomi Hirose said several months ago he was baffled by criticism of the company, which until recently has denied it could have foreseen the scale the tsunami and earthquake that knocked out cooling and power at the plant, despite warnings from scientists.

The once well-respected utility, now under government control, has been widely castigated for its failure to prepare for the disaster, and lampooned for its inept response as the crisis unfolded.

In October, 18 months after the disaster, the company admitted for the first time it could have been avoided.

TRYING TO CHANGE

Anegawa, who has worked at the Fukushima plant, said there were some misunderstandings in the "technological part" of the report.

"But (for) most of the investigation of our organisation culture, we admit that, and we will try to change," he said.

Anegawa was speaking at the news conference with outside monitors Tepco appointed two months ago to oversee its reforms.

Asked to give an example of a step Tepco had taken to improve since he was appointed, Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would only say the company carried out a critical self-assessement and was sharing information.

Those were similar to comments he made in a Reuters interview in October.

Three reactors melted down at the plant, causing the worst radiological release since Chernobyl in 1986, contaminating wide areas of land and forcing about 160,000 people from their homes. Many of those people are unlikely to ever go home.

All of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors were shut down for safety checks after the disaster and only two have resumed operating.

The government's decision this year to restart the two units to avoid possible summer power cuts galvanized the country's anti-nuclear movement, prompting regular mass demonstrations.

The current government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, is aiming to phase out nuclear energy by the end of the 2030s.

But the business-friendly Liberal Democratic Party is expected to return to power in an election on Sunday and it says only that it will take the next 10 years to figure out Japan's "best energy mix".

But even the LDP, which promoted atomic energy during its nearly six decades in power, is not expected to revive a plan to increase nuclear power's share of Japan's electricity supply to more than half by 2030 from nearly 30 percent before the Fukushima disaster. (Additional reporting by Ruairidh Villa, Mari Sato and Linda Sieg; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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