Interview: Former Fukushima Gov. assails Japan’s nuclear system


Former Fukushima Governor Eisaku Sato

TOKYO (majirox news) – Japan’s former governor of the Fukushima prefecture, Eisaku Sato, began a fight against the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner and operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, in 2002. The plant has been spewing radiation since the earthquake and devastating tsunami struck Japan on March 11.

Sato was re-elected governor five times between 1988 and 2006. The 71-year-old was arrested in 2006 for alleged bribery. He claims that the charges were false and lodged against him because he blew the whistle about the lack of safeguards at the Fukushima plant.

He stepped down as governor in 2006. Since then, he has fought the charges of bribery in court. Sato wrote a book about his experience called Annihilate a Governor. The media often quotes him these days and he speaks throughout Japan.

Majiriox News talked with Sato on April 6 from his home at Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture about the plant his court battle in this two-part interview.

Q: Some critics say there was a lack of responsible behavior on the part of the Tokyo Electric Co. (TEPCO, plant owner) and government in relation to the troubles at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. What are your thoughts about this?

First, before I answer your question, I would like to give your readers important background information.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy are under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, (METI). These two agents should be independent of METI, especially the safety agency. TEPCO also shares strong ties with this ministry and agencies. Some of the operators offer profitable jobs to former ministry officials in a practice known as “amakudari,” or “descent from heaven.” In other words, it’s a conflict of interest.

METI, including the safety agency and energy, are untouchable by anyone outside the ministry, especially politicians.

I first became aware that something was wrong with TEPCO’s management in 1989 at Fukushima Daini. Because of poor maintenance several parts, which weighed about 30 kilos, fell into the reactor, causing the reactor coolant system to break down. TEPCO knew about the problem for weeks, but didn’t report it to prefectural officials. I filed a complaint with then Ministry of International Trade and Industry over it, but TEPCO only received a warning and the power plant was operating after a temporary shutdown.

In 2003, throughout Japan, TEPCO shut down 10 reactors at two plants at Fukushima and 7 reactors in the Niigata prefecture because of safety issues and falsified documents. Some of its workers anonymously sent a letter to the safety agency about the plants’ lack of safeguards, including cracked vessels, pipes leaking, falsified inspection records, and other flaws that the plant hid to save on repair costs.

For two years, the safety agency didn’t take any action to fix the problems, although they knew about them.

Around this time, in 2003, KEPCO’s (Kansai Electric Company) Mihama nuclear plant had an accident that killed four workers and severely injured seven because of excessive steam. They didn’t stop the reactor when they were fixing the pipes, which resulted in high steam.

For 25 years, KEPCO didn’t check the pipes. For years, KEPCO had a safety checklist of things to do, but they ignored it. The safety agency, whose job was to monitor the safety of the plant, ignored the problems, and the inevitable result was an accident.

Q: When did TEPCO’s plants start operating again?

About two years after they were shut down in 2003. That’s also when the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant started to operate again.

I believe that the current problems at the plant are man-made because of a lack of safeguards, not the earthquake or tsunami. The design for the plant’s safety was neglected. For example, if they had had an adequate power supply and generators for emergencies – if the first one didn’t work, then the second backup would have kicked in.

TEPCO promoted the safety of the Fukushima plant. Its officials visited every single house within the vicinity of the Fukushima plant to convince them of its safety benefits to the community.

However, Fukushima prefecture’s residents do not get electricity from the plant; they get their energy from the Tohoku (northeast) power plant.

Q: What about the question of the use of plutonium and its effect on the current problems?

Up until 2000, the government promoted nuclear plants, including the plutonium-thermal project (MOX). TEPCO was using plutonium mixed fuel, which makes it very difficult to control and stabilize the temperatures of the fuel rods. That is what is happening right now in one of the reactors at the Fukushima plant.

England, the United States, Germany, and France gave up using MOX fuel projects because of its instability, which can lead to hydrogen explosions.

It’s hypocritical that Japan promised the international nuclear community that we would not have plutonium, which can be used to create nuclear bombs. [*See footnote.]

Q: But you originally approved the MOX project when you were governor.

While I was governor, I initially approved the plutonium-thermal project, but with safety conditions. For example, where they would store the spent fuel rods, how they would keep them, and how they would transfer them to England and Belgium to make MOX fuel. Because TEPCO didn’t fulfill these safety conditions, I pulled my support from the project.

And then, finally, after two years, the letter written anonymously by the workers to the safety agency was sent to my office, and we were shocked. I realized at the time that the government and TEPCO knew about it but didn’t tell us.

Q: Why didn’t they reveal it to you?

Because the government doesn’t stand on the side of its citizens; instead, it is integrated with the industries. This problem is not only between the government and a single ministry but with the entire nuclear power industry, which is a monopoly.

After a while, the information that TEPCO was doing a sloppy job along with government bureaucrats was reported. This led to the resignations of TEPCO’s president Naokai Minami, its chairman Hiroshi Araki, Vice President Satoshi Enomoto, Former President and Advisor Satoshi Hirawa and another advisor. Hirai, at one time, had served as chairman of Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations).

The executives of these companies represented Japan. Every day during this time, they apologized and bowed in front of the camera. It was the company employees who apologized and not the government which escaped.

In fact, during this chaotic time, the government was still promoting the plutonium-thermal project.

Q: What can be done so it doesn’t happen again?

We have to restructure the rules or the same thing will continue to happen. Japan’s system is based on the concept of paternalism; if citizens listen to their father (the government), then everything will be OK. I saw this when I was working as a governor and represented the citizens of the Fukushima prefecture.

Q: What about nationalizing TEPCO?

This is frightening because then the bureaucratic system will grow and gain more power. If we do this, the rotten part of the current system will create another major accident in the future.

We need to look at Germany and France, where they are major users of nuclear energy; they took a long time, 15 years for Germany and 20 years for France and still ongoing, in establishing a long-range nuclear safety strategy. Japan took about a year and a half to develop its strategy.

I want Japan to get help from the world so that we can solve the problems at Fukushima and safety concerns for the future.

I also want Japan to change its paternalistic political structure so it doesn’t happen again.

In part two of the interview, Sato will talk about his arrest and being a whistleblower.

*The mixed oxide (MOX) fuel used in reactor 3 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant contains plutonium, which is much more toxic than the fuel used in the other reactors. MOX fuel is a mixture of uranium and plutonium reprocessed from spent uranium and is sometimes involved in the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

The MOX also has a lower melting point than the other fuels. The Fukushima facility began using MOX fuel last September, becoming the third plant in Japan to do so.

Link to Part Two:

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