Independent unaccountability: the IAEA's "step backward" in regulating international nuclear reactor safety in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.

Author:Long, James Gardner, III
Position:International Atomic Energy Agency

    In the wake of a twenty-three foot tsunami, the leveling of towns along the northeastern coast of Japan dominated international media attention, rather than the looming nuclear crisis, which persists and may make the area uninhabitable for decades. (1) Once the world realized the severity of the nuclear accident, dozens of nations responded by reevaluating their own nuclear safety policies. (2) In June 2011, following the events at Fukushima Daiichi, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met to draft a safety plan for nuclear power plants worldwide; however, the draft adopted in September 2011, failed to assert sufficient policy changes necessary to safeguard citizens living near nuclear power plants. (3) When national regulatory bodies and operating organizations fail to self-govern plant operations adequately, an international force must provide oversight and protect populations and the environment from exposure to deadly radiation. (4)

    This Note will argue that the IAEA must mandate independent internationally-based inspections of nuclear reactors in order to prevent an incident similar to the Fukushima meltdown, because member states' governments and operating organizations continue to fail to safeguard citizens from nuclear disasters. (5) Part II of this Note describes the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor and its implications on international nuclear safety regulation. (6) Part III of this Note discusses the recent history of international regulation of nuclear safety and the failures of member-state oversight. (7) Part IV of this Note will analyze the absence of significant changes in nuclear safety regulations since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, the importance of international oversight because of incompetence of national governments to regulate nuclear power separately, and propose a new legally-binding regulation, The Fukushima Convention. (8) In conclusion, Part V provides necessary policy regulations for substantial prevention of another occurrence, particularly given the advanced age and poor condition of many nuclear power plants around the world. (9)


    1. The Meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor

      1. The Tsunami and the Meltdown

        At 14:46 Japan Standard Time (JST) on March 11, 2011, a rupture of a subduction zone area spanning 400 kilometers (km) in length and 200 km in width produced a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, resulting in a series of tsunami over 8 meters (m) tall crashing into the northeastern region of Japan known as Tohoku. (10) The tsunami caused severe damage to a group of nuclear power plants (plant) lining the Tohoku shores setting a chain of cataclysmic events into motion at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. (11) When the Japanese government initially granted the plant's operating license in 1971, engineers designed the flood barriers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to withstand a 3.1 m tsunami. (12) In 2002, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) improved the barriers to withstand a 5.7 m wave; however, the plant sustained a 14 m tsunami. (13) The inundation of seawater of the entire Fukushima Daiichi plant disabled the entire seawater pump system, all six off-site power lines, and twelve of the thirteen emergency diesel generators (EDG). (14) The loss of virtually all power at the six facilities at Fukushima Daiichi caused all safety measures to fail, resulting in the rise of the core temperatures. (15)

        With no safety systems and no method of cooling reactor temperatures, the fuel rods became exposed; core temperatures continued to rise, eventually reaching the melting point; and all of the fuel rods in Unit 1 and part of the fuel rods in Unit 2 and Unit 3 slumped to the bottom of the containment vessel. (16) As the fuel rods began to melt, the zirconium-based cladding tubes oxidized because of a chemical reaction between the tubes and the water vapor producing highly flammable hydrogen causing explosions at units 1, 3, and 4, which released radioactive material into the atmosphere. (17) TEPCO had shutdown Units 5 and 6 several months before the incident for maintenance, resulting in much lower heat decay temperatures at the time of power failure; coupled with the availability of an emergency diesel generator at Unit 6, the units reached cold shutdown on March 20, 2011, without needing to vent. (18)

        In addition to the six reactors, Fukushima Daiichi plant houses seven spent fuel pools (SFPs), and while these fuel rods no longer provide sufficient fission, they can still cause the pools to boil the coolant and deplete water levels below the top of active fuel. (19) The explosions at Units 1, 3, and 4 exposed the SFPs, thereby allowing aerial access to the pools and use of water cannons and helicopters to ensure that the rods remained submerged. (20) While the explosions left the pools uncovered, the spent fuel rods never boiled the coolant to the point of exposing the rods. (21)

      2. Pre-incident Preparations

        1. Building designs, location, and strength of defense-in-depth strategy

          While considering the extreme conditions within the plants and unprecedented nature of the seismic activity, the IAEA report on the meltdown concluded that the safety culture and defense-in-depth strategy lacked sufficient preparation for tsunami hazards. (22) Without adequate seawall barriers, failure occurred in structures, systems, and components in multiple plant facilities. (23) The report charges the IAEA itself and domestic regulatory organizations to incorporate the lessons learned from the incidents following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (24)

        2. Weak Preparations

          Despite increasing the seawall barrier to withstand a 5.7 m tsunami in 2002, reports indicate that TEPCO knew that a devastating tsunami could strike the Fukushima Daiichi plant making even the 2002 improvements insufficient. (25) Inspections of the plant and its emergency preparedness revealed that insufficient emergency measures compounded the nuclear crisis. (26) Furthermore, investigations into the accident showed that, despite warnings, TEPCO failed to take any preventative actions against a potential tsunami immediately following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. (27)

        3. TEPCO's Liability

          As the operation organization of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, TEPCO must compensate those affected by the meltdown, and reports indicate liability of approximately [yen] 4.54 trillion. (28) The Japanese government set no liability limit for the damage caused by TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi plant. (29) The government further authorized [yen] 1.01 trillion in financial support to aid TEPCO in compensating victims of the meltdown. (30)

      3. Impact on Japan and the World

        The nuclear fallout from the accident resulted in disastrous effects upon the Japanese populous and environment, as well as a ripple effect across the economies of Japan and other states. (31) The radiation emitted by the meltdown displaced local citizens, polluted the regional environment, and caused Japanese officials to ban food produced in the Tohoku region. (32) The meltdown not only affected the health and welfare of the citizens of Japan, but also affected the economic status of Japan in the world. (33)

        1. Human Impact

          In the wake of the tsunami and earthquake, the Tohoku Region of Japan lay devastated with over 28,000 people dead or missing. (34) In addition to the natural destruction to the area, many residents throughout Honshu worried about exposure to radiation leading some foreign residents to leave the country. (35) At the epicenter of the meltdown, approximately 80,000 people lived within the 20 km radius of the reactors, causing many to move to shelters. (36)

          In addition to the human tragedies and risk of radiation exposure, the Fukushima Daiichi plant continued to pollute the environment throughout the Tohoku region. (37) Unsafe levels of radiation in numerous foods led Japan to inspect food for contamination throughout the food chain. (38) Furthermore, the leak in Unit 2 and its continual contamination of the Pacific Ocean concerns many residents about the damaged reactor's effect on the Japanese diet. (39) After the meltdown, radiation levels rose considerably around the world, including in the United States. (40)

        2. Economic Impact

          While the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi caused extensive human and environmental harms, the ramifications of the meltdown gravely affected Japan's economy. (41) Many companies, such as automakers and electronics manufacturers, suspended production. (42) The areas around the damaged plant reported an unemployment rate ten to thirteen times higher than the region's rate of unemployment one year prior to the accident. (43) The economic disruption eventually led Moody's Investors Service to lower Japan's credit rating in August 2011. (44)

    2. Japan's Nuclear Awareness and Opaque Governance

      1. The Tokaimura Incident

        While the Fukushima meltdown ranks as one of the worst plant accidents, another nuclear accident occurred at a uranium processing facility in Tokaimura, Japan in 1999, resulting in hospitalization of three workers and radiation exposure to several others. (45) The workers attempted to mix 16 kg of uranium with nitric acid despite the existence of a 2.4 kilograms safety limit. (46) The employees lacked certification to handle such dangerous and volatile substances and Japanese Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO), the operating private company, instituted an operations manual in direct violation of government regulations. (47)

        The company's action compounded the injuries by preparing written reports instead of notifying emergency responders, contacting city official an hour after the accident rather than appropriate responders, and failing to warn firefighters of the risk of radioactive exposure. (48) The company had no response plan and the president admitted they had not even considered the occurrence of such an accident. (49)

      2. Tradition of Information Concealment

        In order to...

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