Japan's Nuclear Cartel Atomic Industry Too Close to Government for Comfort

After the oil crisis of the 1970s, Japan embraced atomic power with a vengeance. Since then, the ties between the government and the nuclear industry have become so intertwined that public safety is at threat. Inspections are too lax, and anyone who criticizes the status quo can find themselves out of a job.


It was a Friday morning, and Yukio Yamaguchi had left his gray cardigan at home and was wearing his good, dark-brown suit instead. He had boarded the Shinkansen, Japan's high-speed train, to travel to Kashiwazaki-Kariwa on the west coast, home to the world's largest nuclear power plant.

The reserved physicist with horn-rimmed glasses and a gray goatee is an anti-nuclear activist with the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center. He was on his way to attend the meeting of a commission that addresses earthquake safety for power plants. This meeting, together with TEPCO, the operator of the Kashiwazaki plant, was being held to discuss the subject of earthquake and tsunami safety.

It was the morning of March 11, 2011.

Shortly after 1 p.m., Yamaguchi sat down in his usual seat, the second from the left in the first row, in a wood-paneled conference room at the Niigata Prefecture administration building. But what good was it to warn people about the dangerous tidal waves? "It was the same as always," says Yamaguchi. "One man against a dozen TEPCO people. And they said that everything was in perfect order." Until 2:46 p.m., that is, when TEPCO's "perfect order" was destroyed.

The building suddenly started shaking. It was an earthquake, and everyone ran outside. The meeting was interrupted for 15 minutes, but then it was reconvened. A TEPCO spokesman pointed out, once again, how well the Kashiwazaki plant was protected against earthquakes and tsunamis.

No one in the room suspected that in those very minutes, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) farther to the east, a wave more than 14 meters (46 feet) high was rolling toward the six-meter protective wall at TEPCO's second-largest nuclear complex.

The meeting in Niigata ended at about 4 p.m. Just as Yamaguchi was checking into a local business hotel (the bullet train had stopped running, because of the earthquake), TEPCO was notifying the government that it had lost control over the reactors at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Making a Farce of Safety Claims

Time and again, the new realities have revealed the nuclear lobby's safety slogans to be a farce. Apparently the earthquake alone caused the first tubes to crack. The fuel rods melted down into redhot clumps of uranium, eating holes into the floor of the reactor pressure vessel in Unit 1 at an early juncture. And not even the risk of steam explosions has been averted.

TEPCO's and the Japanese government's reassurances have proven to be meaningless. Tens of thousands of people have had to leave their homes, possibly for good. Even the mountain village of Iitate, almost 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the disaster site, has begun to be evacuated.

For a full two months, TEPCO management tried to reassure the public and denied all responsibility, even during its ineffectual attempts to get the damaged reactors under control. It wasn't until last Friday that TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu and Vice President Sakae Muto finally announced their resignations -- a decision that was driven mainly by the company's massive quarterly loss of €10.7 billion ($15.1 billion).

The choice of Toshio Nishizawa, another top executive at TEPCO, to replace Shimizu will hardly change the company's inept crisis management strategy. The crisis team will continue to meet on the second floor of the TEPCO headquarters building in Tokyo, in a large conference room with pieces of paper taped to the inside of the windows. The top executives sit around a semicircular table. There is Muto, head of TEPCO's nuclear division until now, who used to chair the meetings, with Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata sitting to his left. Katsumata usually makes an appearance at 9 a.m. and returns between 6 and 7 p.m. Shimizu was rarely seen at the meetings recently, says another executive.

There are several smaller, round tables scattered around the conference table. Teams of outside experts, including specialists from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and France's Areva nuclear power company, as well as Japanese scientists, sit at these tables. Everyone stares at a large video screen showing dedicated lines to all of TEPCO's power plants, including Kashiwazaki.

At the moment, however, they are usually looking at the bottom left corner of the screen, where there is an image of Masao Yoshida, 56, the head of the plant, who is reporting from the earthquake-proof room at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. "Yoshida often has trouble getting his message across," says one of the meeting participants. "The people at the site have to make an effort to convey how serious the situation really is."

Too Big to Fail

It isn't even entirely clear who is actually responsible for crisis management. A few weeks ago, when SPIEGEL asked a TEPCO spokesman who was running the crisis team, he replied: "Prime Minister (Naoto) Kan." When a member of the Japanese parliament asked the government the same question, it replied: "Primarily TEPCO." Meanwhile, the country's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) announced: "We all support TEPCO in a unified manner in its management of the crisis." One of the government's contributions to this support is financial -- Tokyo is spending the astronomical sum of €43 billion to protect TEPCO from ruin. The axiom "too big to fail," which guaranteed the survival of the major European and American banks during the financial crisis, is also proving to be applicable to Japan's largest electric utility.

TEPCO, the world's fourth-largest power company, employs more than 52,000 people and most recently posted annual revenues of about €35 billion. Before World War II, the government nationalized all electric utilities and merged them into regional monopolies. The resulting 10 companies are now private, but they have retained their regional dominance.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has consistently treated the electric utilities as tools with which to execute its industrial policy. In return, the utilities enjoy guaranteed profits. Some 45 million people in the Tokyo region get their electricity from TEPCO. The company is ubiquitous. It pays for research and sponsors many news programs. It even built a giant electricity museum in the center of Tokyo's popular Shibuya shopping district.

The Fukushima disaster destroyed much more than a power plant. It has destabilized the entire system on which the Japanese nuclear industry is based.

In Japan, the term "The Atomic Village" refers to an isolated elite that has formed around the country's nuclear complex. Its residents include TEPCO's nuclear divisions and the corresponding departments at the METI. Scientists, politicians and journalists are also members of this exclusive nuclear club.

Activist Yamaguchi has repeatedly run up against the secure walls surrounding this Atomic Village. "They all feel connected," he says. "They all studied at the top university in Tokyo, and after that they worked here at TEPCO or at the agency that's supposed to regulate TEPCO."

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