July 26, 2011 / 9:29 PM / 8 years ago

SPECIAL REPORT-Fukushima long ranked Japan's most hazardous nuclear plant

(Read this story in a PDF: link.reuters.com/vad82s)

* One of 5 worst nuclear plants in world for exposure to radiation

* 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 radiation

* Improvements made at Fukushima before disaster hit

By Chisa Fujioka and Kevin Krolicki

TOKYO, July 26 (Reuters) - 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 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 best performance."   ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^     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 plant maintenance.     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.         COST-SAVING CULTURE     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 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

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