(Read this story in a PDF: link.reuters.com/vad82s)
* One of 5 worst nuclear plants in world for exposure to
* Tepco prioritised cost-savings over radiation standard
* Tepco says old plants like Fukushima have high radiation
* Foreign workers used to avoid exposing staff to high
* Improvements made at Fukushima before disaster hit
By Chisa Fujioka and Kevin Krolicki
TOKYO, July 26 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
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 several decades.
"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
Read story in a PDF: link.reuters.com/vad82s
Graphic on TEPCO: link.reuters.com/kyj72s
Graphic on dangerous plants: link.reuters.com/myj72s
Radiation at Fukushima link.reuters.com/qyj72s
Special reports on Japan r.reuters.com/tec78r
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
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 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 the accident.
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
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
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
"Because it was