The story is sadly familiar: A major energy company consistently ignores warnings that a key facility is unsafe. Time and again, the company chooses the cheapest and most expedient way of addressing concerns and maintaining production. For a while, there are no consequences. Then, the inevitable happens — the predictions come true. Compounded by a series of inexplicable human errors, the failure develops into a fully-fledged national disaster. Innocent bystanders come to pay the price for corporate negligence.
Of course, the actors in this rendition are new. The heyday of British Petroleum in the Gulf has come and gone and the lead role has passed to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. So far, they’ve played the part perfectly.
TEPCO is the negligent company par excellence. Between 1977 and 2002, it submitted false records to Japanese public officials on more than 200 occasions. The company also falsified 29 safety repair reports in order to conceal cracks on the cores of its nuclear reactors. These significant breaches of conduct were revealed in 2002 by the Japanese government, resulting in the resignation of TEPCO’s president, vice president and chairman. And yet, the company instantly rebounded, posting growing profits in the following years. When a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck western Japan in 2007, affecting the Kashiwzaki Kariwa nuclear plant, TEPCO reported only a minor fire — it was later discovered that the plant had leaked hundreds of gallons of radioactive water into the sea.
And that’s not the worst of it. As it turns out, TEPCO regularly dismissed third-party recommendations to improve tsunami safeguards at the recently hit Fukushima plant. Though it projected the maximum possible wave would be 18.7 feet, its defenses were only prepared for a 13-footer; the recent tsunami measured in at 46. Scientists estimate that even a magnitude 7.5 quake could have produced a large enough wave to overwhelm the woefully inadequate Fukushima barrier. When the tsunami did hit, knocking out the cooling systems of several reactors, TEPCO initially delayed pumping seawater into the plant, in the hopes of preserving the reactors for future use and profit.
The direct result of this reckless management: Japan now faces a nuclear crisis rivaled in gravity only by Chernobyl.
Fortunately, the TEPCO nightmare has spurred nations around the world to begin conducting reviews of their own nuclear facilities. Now is the ideal time. Nuclear power plants have a limited lifespan — 30 to 40 years on average — and older plants built during the initial boom of nuclear power, such as Fukushima, are nearing their expiration date. For plant operators, the moneymaking incentive is to squeeze the most out of aging facilities, ignoring costly maintenance and cutting as many corners as possible. Make no mistake: This puts the public at an unacceptable risk.
Nuclear power will continue to exist whether we like it or not; our insatiable thirst for energy demands it. But what cannot continue is the lax enforcement of regulations that allowed TEPCO to survive prosecution and avoid reform.
Japanese authorities knew the dangers but did not give them enough time or energy. For their carelessness, the entire nation has paid dearly.
Antiquated technology needs to be modernized or shut down. Many nuclear plants — including those in the U.S. — haven’t upgraded in over 20 years. Some facilities still rely on shaved ice to quench excess steam and reduce pressure in emergencies. As for the possibility of earthquakes, many nuclear plants still use old seismological data to predict possible emergencies, and then use outdated equipment to prepare for them.
These vulnerabilities, among many others, need to be thoroughly reviewed and addressed. Plant operators need to be held responsible for maintaining the highest standards of safety. When it comes to nuclear power, there is no margin for error.
These environmental disasters tend to follow a similar narrative: ignored warnings followed by disaster; with a few insincere apologies, it’s back to business. Like other energy giants, TEPCO will survive the shock. Its current losses total $26 billion and are growing by the day. Yet, as the producer of 40 percent of Japan’s electricity, many experts dub it “too big to fail.” That sounds familiar.
rory marsh is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.