Japanese farmer warned nuclear operator of risks in 2004

2015-07-21 18:06
Water tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima. (Shizuo Kambayashi, Pool, AP)

Water tanks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima. (Shizuo Kambayashi, Pool, AP)

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Iwaki - Masumi Kowata, a diminutive farmer in rural Fukushima, recalled urging a top executive of Tokyo Electric Power to implement anti-tsunami measures at its nuclear facilities years before the 2011 disaster.

"Your company has not taken any measures against tsunamis. Please do so properly," she recalled saying to Tsunehisa Katsumata, who was then-president of Tokyo Electric, the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

The company selected Kowata and 10 other local residents to be a "monitoring group", as part of its public relations activities. The group met with Katsumata and other company executives in 2004.

Unlike most Japanese, Kowata is outspoken.

She requested that the operator relocate backup emergency diesel generators from the basement of the complex's turbine buildings to higher ground.

Local power plant workers in the close-knit community had told her about the facility's potential vulnerabilities.

Katsumata replied that relocation would be costly, she recalled.

"Then I asked Mr Katsumata: 'What if the plant went into meltdown?' He got very angry and said 'No way that would happen'," she said.

Katsumata assured her that the operator would provide compensation if something like that happened, she recalled.

On March 11 2011, her worst fear became reality. The plant suffered meltdowns at three of its six reactors after a magnitude-9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the complex, leaking radiation and causing the loss of nearly all of its power sources.

The plant was unable to cool its reactors because the emergency diesel generators were submerged by the tsunami.

If the operator had moved the diesel generator to higher ground, that "could have made a huge difference", said Baku Nishio, director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre.

A Tokyo Electric spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that Katsumata - who was chairperson at the time of the disaster - no longer works for the company.

120 000 unable to return home

Kowata is among 120 000 people still unable to return home, due to radiation contamination around the plant. For more than four years, she and her husband have been living in prefabricated temporary housing far from their hometown.

In September 2013, the Tokyo prosecutors' office dismissed charges of professional negligence against government officials and Tokyo Electric executives, including Katsumata.

Prosecutors said it was impossible to predict such a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The decision came one year after a parliament-appointed investigative panel concluded that the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl accident was "clearly a man-made disaster" caused by Tokyo Electric.

Last month, lawyers for plaintiffs in a damages suit said an internal Tokyo Electric document suggests the operator was aware of the need to take anti-tsunami measures before the 2011 disaster.

An internal document from 2008 shows that the operator "had clearly recognised, as of that year, that measures against tsunamis were inevitable, contradicting its explanations so far", lawyer Yuichi Kaido told a hearing at the Tokyo District Court.

The document compiled for a company meeting said measures against tidal waves are "inevitable, as we cannot help but expect bigger tsunamis than currently projected", given the opinions of academics and government officials, said the lawyers.

According to an investigative panel report, Tokyo Electric projected in June 2008 that the plant could be struck by a 15.7m-high tsunami, generated by an earthquake. But the operator did not take any measures.

The tsunami that hit the plant in March 2011 was calculated to be about 14 to 15m-high.

In January, the prosecutors' office decided not to indict Katsumata and two other former Tokyo Electric executives for negligence in failing to prevent the disaster, citing a lack of evidence.

The move followed an initial decision in September 2013.

A subsequent investigation was conducted after a special prosecution inquest panel decided to seek indictment.

Kowata said she was not consulted about the second investigation. She has spoken out publicly, but prosecutors have "not come to interview me, and media have not published my episode".

Read more on:    japan  |  natural disasters  |  tsunamis  |  nuclear  |  japan earthquake

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