Report From Tokyo: How Long Should TEPCO Call the Shots?

One has to wonder how long Tokyo Electric Power should call the shots. There is something inherently wrong with allowing the hen to rule the hen house. Yet that is what is happening.
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Since the tragic March 11th earthquake in Japan, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been allowed to manage information flow related to the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. And ever since that date, there have been multiple examples of inaccurate information being released to the public.

So one has to wonder how long TEPCO should call the shots. There is something inherently wrong with allowing the hen to rule the hen house. Yet that is what is happening.

It reminds me of the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year where, it was reasoned, that only BP had the technical expertise to stop the flow of oil. Perhaps that was true. Yet just as it was in BP's interest to control the process, the same is true for TEPCO. The only difference being that the oil spill in the Gulf, while devastating for marine life and industries in the region, did not pose the same threat to the air, land and sea that radiation released from four nuclear reactors does.

It is easy to see why controlling radiation readings and reports of leakage of radioactive water in to the sea is to TEPCO's advantage. In the same way, being in charge of the timetable for bringing the crisis under control allows for flexibility in moving the goal post. On May 30th, TEPCO announced that stabilizing the reactors at their Daiichi Fukushima nuclear power plant by the end of this year (although previously promised) would be difficult to achieve, noting that "there will be a major delay." Who knows how many more of those will be announced in the future.

One result of all this debacle is reflected in the general lack of trust of TEPCO. A whopping 86% of the Japanese public say that TEPCO has done a poor job at managing the crisis. Given that reality, it is not surprising to see more and more members of the public taking matters of safety into their own hands.

In Fukushima City, parents outraged that new government guidelines called for schoolchildren to be exposed to radiation doses that were more than 20 times the previously permissible levels -- a dose equal to the international standard for adult nuclear power plant workers -- demanded that the government protect children from the harmful effects of radiation. As a result of the pressure, the government changed.

Increasing numbers of concerned citizens worried about the safety of their families and communities are taking their own radiation readings. One of my favorite sites that documents daily individual readings is found on Facebook. Such sites help those who live in Japan to feel more at ease that "official" readings are accurate.

TEPCO can certainly not be faulted for having to deal with an ever-changing situation. Every crisis forces decision-makers to manage the unknown. But this is the same organization that grossly underestimated the potential for a huge earthquake, followed by a tsunami, in the first place. In a December 19, 2001 memo, TEPCO ruled out the possibility of a tsunami large enough to knock the plant offline and provided almost no supporting data to justify this conclusion.

That says nothing about the wisdom of building a nuclear power plant on a major fault line in the first place. TEPCO alone can certainly not be blamed for that decision.

The New York Times wrote an interesting piece in April on a "Culture of Complicity" in Japan in which "collusive ties that bind the nation's nuclear power companies, regulators and politicians" made the Daiichi facility vulnerable to natural disaster.

That was followed by another worthwhile read this past week which details how support for nuclear plant is built in surrounding communities by "showering them with generous subsidies, payouts and jobs."

Again, TEPCO is not alone but one does have to ask if it makes sense to continue to let TEPCO call the shots.

David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.

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