Bungling, cover-ups define Japanese nuclear power

PTI Tokyo | Updated on March 18, 2011 Published on March 18, 2011

Behind Japan's escalating nuclear crisis sits a scandal-ridden energy industry in a comfy relationship with government regulators often willing to overlook safety lapses.

Leaks of radioactive steam and workers contaminated with radiation are just part of the disturbing catalogue of accidents that have occurred over the years and been belatedly reported to the public, if at all.

In one case, workers hand-mixed uranium in stainless steel buckets, instead of processing by machine, so the fuel could be reused, exposing hundreds of workers to radiation. Two later died.

“Everything is a secret,” said Mr Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan who now lives in California.

“There's not enough transparency in the industry.”

Mr Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following Friday's 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami.

In 1989, Mr Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in the Tokyo Electric Power Co, but nothing happened. He decided to go public in 2000. Three Tepco executives lost their jobs.

The legacy of scandals and cover-ups over Japan's half-century reliance on nuclear power has strained its credibility with the public.

That mistrust has been renewed this past week with the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. No evidence has emerged of officials hiding information in this catastrophe.

But the vagueness and scarcity of details offered by the government and Tepco are fuelling public anger and frustration.

“I can't believe them,” said Mr Taketo Kuga, a cab driver in Tokyo, where low levels of radiation was observed on Tuesday, despite being 140 miles (220 kilometers) away from the faulty plant.

Published on March 18, 2011
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