Sunday 8 September was an exciting day in Japan. In the early hours the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympic Games for a second time (first time was in 1964).
With 70% of the Japanese population rallying their support behind this bid, the relief and joy of winning made many Japanese come out and celebrate. The Olympics is believed to be able to provide another big boost to the Japanese path of recovery and is considered another victory for prime-minister Abe and his Abenomics.
During the run up towards to final decision of who should host the Olympics, the Tokyo team faced a big challenge. The Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear disaster was making daily headlines again, this time not about rats eating into the electrical supply system but all about contaminated water leaking into the ocean.
Every day new twist and turns happened, with no end or solution in sight. The earlier denials from TEPCO could not be taken serious anymore and finally the largest Utility in Japan came out and acknowledged the problem. Not only acknowledge, but also admitting that they had no real solution, prompting Abe san to step in and have the government take control of the problem (days before the IOC would decide on the host city).
While the media is on top of the “leakage story” an important other part is forgotten. TEPCO has scheduled to start removing 400 ton worth of spent fuel rods stored in a pool on top of the unit no 4 building.
The building is badly damaged and hence it is important that the 1300 or so rods are relocated. This will be a highly delicate operation and with much greater risk then the leakage of contaminated water. Any mistake could cause a chain reaction which will be impossible to control.
Considering the media scrutiny, resources are focused on resolving the leakage trouble, while much more critical problems are being delayed.
The continuous and escalating problems at Fukushima were not only a threat to securing the 2020 Olympics, but also towards the government plan to restart idle nuclear facilities who are meeting the new safety requirements as laid out by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).
The new regulations came into effect as of 1st July 2013 and are more stringent than the previous regulations. They among others require a back-up control center, electrical backup power located at higher grounds, filtered venting system as well as tsunami walls (if applicable) to protect the plants from a direct hit.
Immediately after the new regulations came into force, 4 Utilities applied for the mandatory safety inspection by NRA officials for a total of 12 reactors. The independent NRA is able to mobilize only three teams (one team is required for each reactor) to conduct such inspections and as such it will take some time before any approval can be given.
Considering that the Oi plant unit 3 and 4, which were for the only two reactors running, are being shut down by 15th September for mandatory inspection, Japan will again be without nuclear power to at least the year end, the longest time on record.
While the new regulations are among the toughest in the world, it does not mean that suddenly the nuclear industry in Japan has become a lot safer. Before the Nuclear crisis Japan also had a good set of safety regulations in place, it was just that the Utility industry either modified them or did not bother to comply at all.
Frequently cases have been surfacing related to falsifying paper work, ignoring risk warnings claiming they were either too expensive or would cause anxiety for the people around the plants. So why would this be any different with a new set of regulations? It is of a higher priority to change the mindset of the utility companies regarding safety and its implementation when disaster strikes.
The approach of “no failure is allowed” must change to one that determines specific action in cases it does go wrong. A safety culture needs to be established and promoted, defining clearly each individual’s task to identify and report any (potentially) dangerous situation regardless of the organizational hierarchy and traditional behavior.
The award of the 2020 Olympics’ is a great victory for the people of Japan, the fact that the IOC trusts Tokyo and Japan to organize such a huge event is commendable. Let this be the game changer, the adrenaline shot that revitalizes Japan and show the world what it can achieve in times of great challenge.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Asian Power. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Frenk Withoos is Vice President, Local Division Manager at the Process Automation Division of ABB Japan. He is also Chairman of the Energy Committee of Japan's European Business Council.