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."
A Threat to Japan's Democracy
Both the nuclear industry and its government regulators are also closely intertwined with the political sphere. TEPCO's management is among the key campaign donors to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Meanwhile, the union that represents workers in the electricity industry supports Prime Minister Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). So far neither of the two parties has taken a position critical of the nuclear industry.
It's as if Austrian writer Robert Jungk's horrific vision of the "nuclear state" had become reality. In his book "The Nuclear State," once required reading for Germany's protest generation, Jungk describes how a high-risk technology can erode a democracy, even without a nuclear disaster. Many of the protesters who faced water cannons, batons and concertina wire during demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s at German sites like the Brokdorf nuclear power plant near Hamburg, already felt as if they were living in the dreaded surveillance state.
Germany was ultimately spared Jungk's vision, but in Japan it has proven to be prophetic. In a consensus-based society, the nuclear industry, electric utilities, political parties and scientists have created a sacrosanct refuge for themselves that has become a threat to Japan's democracy.
It is clear that wheeling and dealing in the Atomic Village played a role in the Fukushima disaster. According to TEPCO's calculations, the maximum possible height of a tsunami in Fukushima was 5.7 meters. The company acted on the authority of a committee made up of members of Japan's engineering society. But a majority of the commission's 35 members had once worked for electric utilities or think tanks funded by the utilities.
'The Japanese Public Is Partly Responsible'
Even many media organizations, as recipients of generous payments for the electricity industry, are part of the cartel. "The Japanese public is partly responsible for the disaster in Fukushima," says activist Yukio Yamaguchi. Nature triggered the catastrophe, but Japan itself created the conditions that allowed it to happen, he says.
Ironically, hardly any country on earth is more poorly suited for high-risk nuclear technology than earthquake-plagued Japan. A folk legend describes the islands as being perched on the back of a giant fish in the ocean, a fish that is constantly trembling and twitching -- not a good basis for operating the world's third-largest collection of nuclear reactors. Only the United States and France have more nuclear plants.
Nevertheless, until disaster struck Japan continued to forge ambitious expansion plans. To reach its goal of producing half of all the electricity it consumes with nuclear energy by 2030, the country had planned to build a double-digit number of new reactors.
The oil shock of the 1970s came as a wakeup call for Japan, a rising industrial nation at the time. It prompted the government to define the development of a strong nuclear industry as a national goal. Since then, Japanese politicians have inextricably linked the country's rise to prominence and prosperity with nuclear energy.
Buoyed by the prospect of being largely independent of imports of fuel for energy production, Japanese politicians even decided to establish a plutonium industry. Fast breeder reactors, which produce more fuel than they consume, seemed too tempting to pass up.
While most of the world's nuclear nations were abandoning this risky and expensive option (Germany turned its fast breeder reactor in Kalkar near the Dutch border into the most expensive amusement park of all time), Japan inaugurated its Monju breeder reactor and, in 1993, laid the foundation for a reprocessing plant in Rokkasho on the northern tip of the main island, Honshu. At an estimated cost to date of more than €14 billion, the facility is one of the most expensive industrial plants in the world, and yet it has never been in full-fledged operation.
"Our country was literally brainwashed," says Taro Kono, a member of the lower house of the Japanese Diet for the conservative LDP. "Atomic energy is a cult in Japan."
Kono, 48, comes from one of Japan's major political dynasties. He has been a member of the parliament for almost 15 years and is notorious for his independent views. He is one of the few members of his parliamentary group to have dared to question Japan's nuclear policy. As a member of parliament who has one of the best election results in Japan, Kono feels even more emboldened to express his opinion. "This is the only reason I can afford to criticize the nuclear industry in the first place," he says with a smile.
"Now TEPCO is saying that the tsunami was much bigger than expected," says Kono. "But what were they expecting?" This, he says, was the conclusion reached by a commission dominated by the power companies, which included almost no earthquake or tsunami experts. "It determined how big the tsunami should be," Kono says. "That's why the electric utilities are the ones who are mainly responsible. It's as simple as that." But for Kono, finding allies is difficult in a country where any criticism of the nuclear industry can end the careers of scientists, journalists and politicians.
Scientists Keep Quiet
TEPCO's influence even extends into scientific laboratories. Many scientists, especially at the University of Tokyo, are partial to TEPCO. The company contributes millions to the university and supports many associations, think tanks and commissions. This form of public relations has been useful to the company until now.
Not a single scientist or engineer at the University of Tokyo has ever been known to have spoken critically about TEPCO, even after the accident in Fukushima. "If you are a critic of nuclear power, you are not promoted, you don't even become a professor, and you are certainly not appointed to key commissions," says Kono.
At times, doubts are indeed voiced about the system of crony commissions. Five years ago, for example, seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from the committee that had been tasked with revising the safety regulations for Japanese nuclear power plants. Of the 19 committee members, 11 were also members of committees within the Japanese electricity lobby. Ishibashi criticized the decision-making process on the committee for being "unscientific." "If we do not fundamentally improve our technical standards for nuclear power plants, Japan could experience a nuclear catastrophe after an earthquake," he warned at the time.
But it is difficult to get through to the Japanese public with such warnings, given the millions upon millions of euros TEPCO spends on media and public relations each year. Its image cultivation campaign even includes the sponsorship of news programs, including Tokyo station TBS's "News 23," Fuji's "Mezamashi TV" and TV Asahi's "Hodo Station." In TEPCO's world, everyone gets a piece of a very large nuclear pie.
Keeping the Media Sweet
The company also has a habit of placating journalists with luxury trips. For example, on the day the tsunami inundated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, TEPCO Chairman Katsumata was keeping journalists company in a nice new hotel in China -- on an "educational trip."
"We have built the structure in such a way that everyone has an interest in supporting nuclear power," says Kono. Stricter inspectors, critical reporters and obstreperous citizens would only get in the way.
There has been no lack of alarm signals, but they have never produced any consequences. The biggest scandal to date came to light through a disgruntled employee. In 1989, Kei Sugaoka, a US engineer with Japanese roots, inspected Reactor 1 at the now-stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant. He worked for General Electric (GE), the plant's manufacturer.
Sugaoka was startled to find cracks in the steam dryer, "pretty sizeable ones," as he recalls today. It later occurred to him that the device had been installed incorrectly -- by a 180-degree rotation. He notified his superiors. Then his team waited a few days for further instructions, while receiving their full pay.
When the men were called back to the power plant, their higher-ups had apparently agreed on the next steps. Sugaoka says that his supervisor at GE told him to edit the inspection video and remove the sections in which the cracks were visible. "And that was what my team did," says the engineer, "while two men from TEPCO looked on."
Nevertheless, he felt uneasy about the whole thing. After returning home, he wrote down what had happened and kept the documents. After being fired from GE in 1998, Sugaoka was determined to bring the affair to light. On June 28, 2000, he wrote a letter to Japan's nuclear safety agency NISA, describing what had happened. He wrote three or four similar letters after that.
Sugaoka's revelations shook the country. It soon became clear that TEPCO had systematically falsified safety reports. The company's president and four other senior executives had to resign over the affair, and the government temporarily shut down 17 reactors.
About that time, it was also revealed that several Japanese TEPCO employees had reported safety concerns to the regulatory agency. It, in turn, promptly disclosed the whistleblowers' identities to TEPCO, as a NISA spokesman confirmed.
The scandal had no long-term consequences in Japan. In Fukushima, however, it brought Eisaku Sato into the arena. Sato, the former governor of Fukushima Prefecture, is a distinguished, silver-haired gentleman. He loves antiques and golf, and he opposes nuclear energy.
After discovering how carelessly NISA had treated the complaints from inside the Atomic Village, he decided to get involved. From 2002 to 2006, 21 insiders contacted Sato directly, and members of his staff met secretly with the whistleblowers. After recording and documenting the complaints, they forwarded them to NISA.
Whenever nothing happened for a period of time after the complaints had been submitted, Sato's staff members made more inquiries. "No one was keeping tabs on TEPCO," says Sato, who is wearing dark-blue sports jacket with a pocket square. "Fukushima Prefecture took on the job that NISA really ought to be doing. The main problem wasn't TEPCO at all, but NISA. They simply didn't pass on the complaints."
The ministries, regulatory agencies and power companies are so closely intertwined that conflicts of interest are virtually built into the system. One of the objectives of the powerful industry ministry, METI, is to promote the nuclear industry. Another goal is to export Japanese nuclear technology to emerging economies. The problem, however, is that NISA, the agency that is supposed to monitor the nuclear industry, comes under the authority of the nuclear-friendly METI.
The Power of Amakudari
Not surprisingly, the controls are lax, reports nuclear engineer Tetsunari Iida. He once designed the Japanese version of the CASTOR containers that are used to transport highly radioactive nuclear waste in Europe. To this day, he remembers how shocked he was as a novice in the industry. "I was just a 20-year-old boy, but what I did was simply rubber-stamped," says Iida.
Even 20 years ago, Iida experienced how nuclear power plant workers would signal to each other when an inspector was approaching. A worker would quickly wipe off a leaking heat exchanger to make it look perfectly in order, and would then disappear. The inspector noticed what was going on but ignored it. "Our inspections are a complete sham," says Iida.
The close-knit relationship between the industry and regulators is so legendary that it even has a name: "amakudari," or "descended from the sky," which refers to the practice of government officials, after serving out their terms at a ministry, directly switching to lucrative positions with the electricity giants.
One of the vice-president positions at TEPCO has been reserved for an amakudari official for decades. A man named Takeo Ishihara was once a deputy state secretary, in a position titled "coordinator of nuclear policy." After TEPCO hired him in 1962, he became a managing director and then a vice-president.
In 1980, a state secretary at the Energy Ministry switched to TEPCO, where he performed the same duties. Other senior officials followed in 1990 and 1999. In April, a member of parliament with the Communist Party asked the government whether these industry jobs were "reserved slots." A spokesman said: "You could call it that."
Arrogance Meets Incompetence
In terms of the hands-on work at the plants, most workers are temporary workers and day laborers working for subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. But even the highly qualified specialists are often not employed by TEPCO, but by manufacturers like Hitachi and Toshiba, or even directly by General Electric in the United States.
These experts know all too well how little the TEPCO managers know about their own reactors. "The people at TEPCO," says Tsuneyasu Satoh, who worked as a subcontractor in Fukushima for many years, "are bureaucrats who stop by once in a while to tell us what to do."
TEPCO's engineers display a combination of arrogance and incompetence. When Sugaoka went public with the scandal over falsified safety reports, the company conducted an internal analysis and even admitted to significant deficiencies. According to the analysis, TEPCO engineers were "overly self-confident with regard to their nuclear expertise." For this reason, the analysis continued, they did not report problems to the government, "as long as they believed that safety was assured."
However, neither TEPCO nor NISA drew any conclusions from these insights. Even the scandal did nothing to stop the operating license for the extremely old Reactor 1 at Fukushima Daiichi being extended for another 10 years. Even worse, the regular intervals at which power plants are inspected can now be extended from 13 to 16 months.
"That's the consequence of the entire scandal for TEPCO," Aileen Mioko Smith, an anti-nuclear activist with the nongovernmental organization Green Action Japan, says derisively, "new standards and ultimately fewer inspections."
When the TEPCO spokesman is asked whether the company has ever implemented a proposal by the anti-nuclear activists, he says: "I don't understand the question."
Even after the disaster, the company still tried to throw sand in the eyes of journalists. Reporters with the television stations and major newspapers have been camped out on the ground floor of the TEPCO headquarters building for the last 10 weeks. In press conferences, they are usually presented with a jumble of supposedly precise raw data. But what are reporters supposed to do with hundreds of pieces of data without any context at all, particularly as they often turn out to be incorrect soon afterwards?
TEPCO officials like to talk about the data but prefer to avoid the subject of responsibility. Whether it's amakudari, political contributions or funding for scientific research, a TEPCO spokesman has a similar response to questions on all of these issues: "No commento."
Fired After Reporting on Fukushima
Takashi Uesugi, a television journalist, is one of those reporting on how sensitively the electricity giant reacts when unflattering information manages to get out. He is a popular television and radio host in Japan, and his programs are both political and entertaining. Uesugi is normally an affable 43-year-old who likes to play golf. Until the Fukushima accident, he had little to do with nuclear power.
But he has always taken issue with his counterparts at the major newspapers, who he sees as little more than the PR agents of the ministers they report about. After the disaster in Fukushima, Uesugi also camped out in the TEPCO lobby, because he wanted to know what was happening in the reactor.
On March 15, at 1 p.m., Uesugi was conducting a live broadcast on the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). He said that radioactivity was apparently escaping from Reactor 3 and that this was being reported abroad. "It was an obvious thing to report," he says. After the broadcast, however, his boss came to him and told him he was fired, says Uesugi. He hasn't worked for TBS since then. A spokesman for the TBS programming department says that the station had already decided earlier to sever its working relationship with Uesugi, and that there was no pressure from TEPCO.
Uesugi doesn't believe these claims, particularly as he also experienced problems soon afterwards on another TV program. The electric utility association ended its sponsorship of "Asahi Newstar" after Uesugi had invited a critic of nuclear power to appear as a guest on his program. The station claims that it had already planned to end the electric utility sponsorship. A TEPCO spokesman characterizes as "inconceivable" the notion that TEPCO would try to pressure a journalist like Uesugi.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has begun asking Internet providers to remove "false reports" about Fukushima from the web, arguing that the population should not be troubled unnecessarily. "This is worse than in Egypt and China," says Uesugi. According to the government request, all reports that "harm the public order and morale" should be removed.
Nuclear critic Robert Jungk devoted an entire chapter to the industry's treatment of its adversaries. The chapter is titled: "The Intimidated."
In Japan, the insiders who talked about the abuses at TEPCO were intimidated, as were journalists who reported on these abuses, like Takashi Uesugi.
There are some indications that Eisaku Sato, the distinguished former governor of Fukushima Prefecture, was also a victim of intimidation. Sato attempted to oppose the power of the atom. He had aligned himself with the governors of other prefectures with nuclear plants, and he tried to establish an axis critical of nuclear power.
Sato, a relatively minor local politician, invited experts from all over the world to formulate a new Japanese energy policy. He was perhaps the most influential Japanese critic of the nuclear industry -- until his political career ended abruptly in 2006, when he was arrested on charges of corruption. He and his brother were accused of having collected an inflated price for a piece of property from a construction company that had worked for the prefecture.
'Same People as Always'
A court found Sato guilty, and although an appeals court in Tokyo later reduced the sentence, it did not overturn the guilty verdict. He has now taken his case to the Japanese Supreme Court, where he hopes to be declared innocent.
A former Tokyo prosecutor says that Sato's brother did not make any profit at all with the sale of the property. Besides, the public prosecutor assigned to the case at the time has since been sentenced to 18 months in prison for planting false evidence on a high-ranking government official he had investigated in another case.
But who, if not critics like Sato, can hold people responsible for the disaster? At least the statement made by Prime Minister Kan last Wednesday offers a hopeful outlook. He announced a new plan to decartelize the regulatory agencies, break up the regional monopolies of the Japanese electric utilities and rethink the country's energy policy "from the bottom up."
Aileen Mioko Smith, the activist with Green Action Japan, doesn't have much faith in such promises. She already dreads what she expects will be Japan's usual handling of such disasters. "A commission will be formed to examine the accident, and it will consist of exactly the same people as always."