Corrupt culture in Japan’s nuclear industry

nuclear industry officials, bureaucrats, politicians and scientists — have prospered by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions, and political, financial and regulatory support. 

Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant, Kyodo/Reuters, By NORIMITSU ONISHI and KEN BELSON, April 26, 2011   “…….The mild punishment meted out for past safety infractions has reinforced the belief that nuclear power’s main players are more interested in protecting their interests than increasing safety. In 2002, after Tepco’s cover-ups finally became public, its chairman and president resigned, only to be given advisory posts at the company. Other executives were demoted, but later took jobs at companies that do business with Tepco. Still others received tiny pay cuts for their role in the cover-up. And after a temporary shutdown and repairs at Daiichi, Tepco resumed operating the plant.

In a telephone interview from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Sugaoka said, “I support nuclear power, but I want to see complete transparency.”

Revolving Door

InJapan, the web of connections between the nuclear industry and government officials is now popularly referred to as the “nuclear power village.” The expression connotes the nontransparent, collusive interests that underlie the establishment’s push to increase nuclear power despite the discovery of active fault lines under plants, new projections about the size of tsunamis and a long history of cover-ups of safety problems.

Just as in any Japanese village, the like-minded — nuclear industry officials, bureaucrats, politicians and scientists — have prospered by rewarding one another with construction projects, lucrative positions, and political, financial and regulatory support. The few openly skeptical of nuclear power’s safety become village outcasts, losing out on promotions and backing.

Until recently, it had been considered political suicide to even discuss the need to reform an industry that appeared less concerned with safety than maximizing profits, said Kusuo Oshima, one of the few governing Democratic Party lawmakers who have long been critical of the nuclear industry.

“Everyone considered that a taboo, so nobody wanted to touch it,” said Mr. Oshima, adding that he could speak freely because he was backed not by a nuclear-affiliated group, but by Rissho Kosei-Kai, one of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist movements.

“It’s all about money,” he added.

At Fukushima Daiichi and elsewhere, critics say that safety problems have stemmed from a common source: a watchdog that is a member of the nuclear power village.

Though it is charged with oversight, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is part of the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, the bureaucracy charged with promoting the use of nuclear power. Over a long career, officials are often transferred repeatedly between oversight and promotion divisions, blurring the lines between supporting and policing the industry.

Influential bureaucrats tend to side with the nuclear industry — and the promotion of it — because of a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven. Widely practiced inJapan’s main industries, amakudari allows senior bureaucrats, usually in their 50s, to land cushy jobs at the companies they once oversaw.

According to data compiled by the Communist Party, one of the fiercest critics of the nuclear industry, generations of high-ranking officials from the ministry have landed senior positions at the country’s 10 utilities since Japan’s first nuclear plants were designed in the 1960s. In a pattern reflective of the clear hierarchy inJapan’s ministries and utilities, the ministry’s most senior officials went to work at Tepco, while those of lower ranks ended up at smaller utilities.

At Tepco, from 1959 to 2010, four former top-ranking ministry officials successively served as vice presidents at the company. When one retired from Tepco, his junior from the ministry took over what is known as the ministry’s “reserved seat” of vice

president at the company.

In the most recent case, a director general of the ministry’s Natural Resources and Energy Agency, Toru Ishida, left the ministry last year and joined Tepco early this year as an adviser. Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government initially defended the appointment but reversed itself after the Communist Party publicized the extent of amakudari appointments since the 1960s. Mr. Ishida, who would have normally become vice president later this year, was forced to step down last week.

Kazuhiro Hasegawa, a spokesman for Tepco, denied that it was an amakudari appointment, adding that the company simply hired the best people. The company declined to make an executive available for an interview about the company’s links with bureaucrats and politicians.

Lower-ranking officials also end up at similar, though less lucrative, jobs at the countless companies affiliated with the power companies, as well as advisory bodies with close links to the ministry and utilities.

“Because of this collusion, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency ends up becoming a member of the community seeking profits from nuclear power,” said Hidekatsu Yoshii, a Communist Party lawmaker and nuclear engineer who has long followed the nuclear industry.

Collusion flows the other way, too, in a lesser-known practice known as amaagari, or ascent to heaven. Because the regulatory panels meant to backstop the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency lack full-time technical experts, they depend largely on retired or active engineers from nuclear-industry-related companies. They are unlikely to criticize the companies that employ them.

Even academics who challenge the industry may find themselves shunned. AsJapanhas begun looking into the problems surrounding collusion since March 11, the Japanese news media has highlighted the discrimination faced by academics who raised questions about the safety of nuclear power.

InJapan, research into nuclear power is financed by the government or nuclear power-related companies. Unable to conduct research, skeptics, especially a group of six atKyotoUniversity, languished for decades as assistant professors.

One, Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear reactor expert who has held a position equivalent to assistant professor for 37 years atKyotoUniversity, said he applied unsuccessfully for research funds when he was younger.

“They’re not handed out to outsiders like me,” he said. …..

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