By Stephen Leahy*
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 23, 2011 (Tierramérica) - As Japan struggles to confront a nuclear disaster that could be the worst in history, it seems clear that any discussion about the safety of nuclear energy should address the independence of regulatory agencies.
On Apr. 26, 1986 a series of explosions and fires at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine released radioactive fallout that spread over eastern and western Europe, particularly affecting Ukraine itself, Byelorussia (now Belarus) and Russia, all Soviet republics at the time.
Twenty-five years later, Chernobyl's reactor number 4 continues to emit high levels of radioactivity even though it is buried under a thick but decaying layer of concrete.
Europe and the United States are trying to raise more than two billion dollars to build a permanent sarcophagus to contain the radiation.
The Chernobyl disaster is usually attributed to obsolete technology and the secrecy characteristic of the Soviet regime.
The accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was triggered by the damage resulting from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on Mar. 11.
But "TEPCO doesn't have the best record for safety or disclosure of information," said Mycle Schneider, a Paris-based energy and nuclear policy analyst who also works in Japan.
In 2002 TEPCO was caught falsifying safety records and was forced to shut down all 17 of its reactors, including those at the stricken Fukushima I facility, located some 240 kilometres north of Tokyo in eastern Japan, on the Pacific coast.
TEPCO executives admitted to over 200 submissions of false technical data in the previous two decades. The only reason TEPCO was caught was because a U.S. nuclear engineer working at TEPCO came forward with the information, Schneider told Tierramérica.
A smaller 6.6 earthquake in 2007 forced TEPCO to shut down all seven reactors at the world's largest nuclear power station on the west coast of the country. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility was closed for 21 months for repairs and additional earthquake-proofing. Only four of seven reactors have been restarted.
"There is no location in Japan that isn't prone to earthquakes," said Schneider.
Japan obtains one third of its electricity from 55 nuclear reactors, behind France with 59 and the United States with over 100. Japan has no oil, natural gas or coal deposits and is a major energy user. The country has plans to build 15 more nuclear reactors.
There have been a number of accidents at other Japanese nuclear facilities.
These include a 2004 incident that killed five workers and another in 1996 where radioactive fallout drifted over the northeastern suburbs of Tokyo. The latter went largely unreported due to a government ban on press coverage of the incident, alleged journalist Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, in a report published by The 4th Media.
Japan's environmental activists have long complained about the inadequacy in government regulation and a culture within the industry's management of covering up mistakes.
The problem is that nuclear power companies like TEPCO and the government regulators are "essentially one and the same," says Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, a civil society organisation.
This is the situation not only in Japan but in Canada, the United States and other countries, Edwards told Tierramérica.
"There are few independent nuclear experts in the world. Everyone either works in the industry or used to and are now regulators," he said.