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Nuclear industry ‘played down disaster warning’

Report reveals how Japanese officials were lobbied just before Fukushima crisis

If the risks related to nuclear energy were publicly acknowledged, citizens would demand that plants be shut down

Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation report

Power companies in Japan are facing questions over their conduct just before last year’s devastating tsunami that led to nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

Only eight days before the tsunami struck the Pacific coast of Tohoku a year ago last Sunday, three nuclear power companies forced the government to downplay the risk of a massive wave caused by an earthquake in the ocean.

According to sources in Japan, Tohoku Electric Power Company, Japan Atomic Power Company and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which operates the Fukushima plant, begged Japanese government officials to change a draft report discussing the prospects of a tsunami hitting north-east Japan.

The draft report, written by the Japanese government’s earthquake research committee, suggested that there was a high probability of a major quake causing a tsunami similar to one in the year 869, which was in the same area and killed around 1,000 people. Geology experts predicted in 2001 that the area was already overdue a repeat.

But, under heavy lobbying by the nuclear companies, the secretariat of the committee in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology softened the language in the report so that the public would not think that another disaster could strike very soon.

The secretariat told the companies: “We are not changing the context, but we are going to do something so it may not induce such misunderstanding.”

The ministry produced a new draft, which said that “further study” was needed to determine whether massive quakes similar to the one in 869 had taken place because “appropriate data are insufficient.”

The report was not published in light of the tsunami that struck the region soon afterwards.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean triggered the tsunami that killed up to 20,000 people and caused £150 billion-worth of damage.

Three of Fukushima’s six reactors went into meltdown, and one was devastated by a massive hydrogen explosion. There is still an exclusion zone in force.

The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a think-tank set up in response to the disaster, has produced a 1,000-page report in Japanese on the country’s readiness to deal with the tsunami and its aftermath. It was published to coincide with the catastrophe’s first anniversary.

The Japanese nuclear community, according to an English translation of the report, “feared that if the risks related to nuclear energy were publicly acknowledged, citizens would demand that plants be shut down until the risks were removed.

“Japan’s nuclear community has also feared that preparation for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants.”

The report said that the tsunami should have been anticipated. Tepco had “inherent” managerial and cultural problems, and so was “astonishingly unprepared” for last year’s disaster.

In 2008, Tepco officials had dismissed warnings in an internal report that estimated the nuclear plant could be threatened by a tsunami of up to 10.2 metres. Last year’s tsunami was more than 14 metres high.

Japan’s nuclear industry has long been afraid of strong opposition following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings at the end of World War II.

In February, Haruki Madarame, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, admitted that the government was more interested in promoting nuclear energy than protecting its citizens.

He said that officials blindly believed that Japan was technologically competent, but failed to weigh the risks of having nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone country.

Tepco shareholders are suing the company’s executives for 5.5 trillion yen for failing to prepare for a severe accident. The shareholders plan to use the money to compensate those affected by the disaster.

Last week, Tepco began its reparation pay-outs for voluntary evacuees. The compensation will include damages, living expenses and psychological distress, and sums start from 80,000 yen per person.

In January, researchers at the University of Tokyo warned that a “big earthquake” was likely to hit Tokyo in the next four years. Since last year’s disaster, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of earthquakes in Japan’s capital city, which leads to a higher probability of a major quake.

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