BEHIND THE MYTH: 'Nuclear village' rules itself in TEPCO hierarchy
BY ATSUSHI KOMORI STAFF WRITER
Senior TEPCO officials huddle to discuss a problem involving a reactor cooling device just before resuming service at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant No. 7 reactor in 2009. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series on the problems, such as the safety myth, inherent in the nation's nuclear power generation industry.
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A fiefdom of nuclear experts at Tokyo Electric Power Co. has survived past crises and appears likely to withstand fallout from the controversy at the embattled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The "nuclear village," as it is known, has maintained its independence for decades, virtually shielded from other parts of the company by the specialized nature of its operations.
The "village" is headed by Executive Vice President Sakae Muto, 60, general manager of the Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division.
His predecessor, Ichiro Takekuro, 65, holds the title of "fellow," who assists the president as the top nuclear expert.
Muto, Takekuro and others attended a meeting on April 17 of the combined government-TEPCO headquarters in regards to the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Earlier the same day, TEPCO announced a road map to bring reactors crippled by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake to cold shutdown.
According to an internal TEPCO document, Masao Yoshida, 56, site superintendent of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, said, "The level 7 accident has gone beyond the bounds of our plant. We expect systems to be improved fundamentally."
The meeting started at 7 p.m. at the headquarters located on the second floor of TEPCO's Tokyo head office. Yoshida, who was at the Fukushima plant, was taking part through a teleconferencing system.
Takekuro said, "We need to make thorough efforts, different from the emergency measures we have taken."
Muto finally said, "(The road map) has presented the broad future direction in two steps. It is an unprecedented, fully loaded initiative."
Muto, Takekuro and other executives reign over a corps of about 3,000 nuclear engineers at TEPCO.
In 2002, the nuclear village was rocked by a cover-up scandal in which inspection records of nuclear power plants were doctored and reports were falsified.
TEPCO's president and his three predecessors who were either chairman or adviser, as well as the executive vice president who headed the Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division, were forced to step down.
Tsunehisa Katsumata, who is currently chairman, became president and promised to regain public trust.
TEPCO moved to break the closed nature of the nuclear power business to prevent a recurrence of the scandal.
Executive Vice President Ryoichi Shirato, who specialized in thermal power plants, was appointed general manager of the Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division.
Senior public relations officials became chiefs of nuclear power plants and opened up the plants by increasing the number of citizens who visit the facilities.
In the scandal, Takekuro, who was the chief of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, was punished with a pay cut for his management responsibility.
Still, the nuclear village's order was restored in 2005, when Takekuro succeeded Shirato as general manager of the Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division.
"There are many more procedures (for nuclear power plants) than for thermal power plants. I cannot find which (parties) I should work on," Shirato said when he headed the division. "I feel as if I have got lost after straying into the nuclear village whose chief is absent."
A senior TEPCO official who has spent his entire career in the nuclear power division said, "It is difficult for people from other divisions to quickly understand (the nuclear power business).
"The problem is that no one was thinking about safety designs and accidents because our hands were kept full by government inspections and explanations to officials for as many as 17 reactors."
In 2007, a fire broke out at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant after the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake struck.
After several fires followed at the plant, Takekuro, general manager of the Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division, his deputy Muto and Yoshida, who was general manager of the Nuclear Asset Management Department, all received pay cuts.
But the hierarchy of the nuclear village never changed.
At a news conference on May 17, Muto said, "I apologize for, as a consequence, causing a major accident."
The phrase "as a consequence" reveals his perception that the accident at the Fukushima plant was a result of the unexpected earthquake and tsunami.
Muto will step down in June to take responsibility for the accident but will continue to serve as adviser.
Even the company president cannot easily intervene with the nuclear village, jealously guarded by insiders.
"The nuclear power division is an adobe of demons," said a former senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. "The division is supported by TEPCO as well as by the entire economic society."
The nuclear power division dates back to a five-member section set up in 1955.
In 1960, TEPCO decided to build its first nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture.
One of the engineers involved in the project was Masatoshi Toyota, 87, who later became executive vice president. Toyota came to be known as the "don" of the nuclear village.
"Emergency power sources were rendered unusable by the tsunami because of the poor layout by a U.S. consulting company who took part in the designs," Toyota said, referring to the accident at the Fukushima plant.
"I wonder if workers at the plant were not aware of the problem or they were not able to propose (changes) because of costs."
The No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant started operations in 1971. The 17th reactor, the No. 7 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, was commissioned in 1997.
TEPCO was scheduled to start construction of a new reactor, the No. 1 reactor at the Higashidori nuclear power plant, this year.
TEPCO spends about 500 billion yen ($6.19 billion) annually on operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants.
The amount for TEPCO and eight other electric power companies that own nuclear power plants totals nearly 2 trillion yen.
TEPCO's nuclear village is part of a vast nuclear industry complex encompassing politicians, bureaucrats, academics and even labor representatives.
The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Inc. is made up of more than 400 companies, including heavy electric machinery makers and trading houses.
It is estimated that 300 billion yen to 500 billion yen is required to build a nuclear power reactor. Stable income from electricity charges under virtual regional monopoly enables such massive investments.
A former senior TEPCO official said electric power companies can recover whatever investments they make because they are allowed to raise electricity rates to cover costs.
"What is important for management is to protect the regional monopoly," the former official said. "To work on various quarters to maintain that monopoly became the company's main business."
Regional monopoly has been maintained because electric power companies control power grids.
A group of industry ministry officials challenged the dominance of regional utilities from the 1990s to the early 2000s.
The bureaucrats compared TEPCO and eight other electric power companies to domains governed like independent countries under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
They argued that Japan will lose its competitiveness due to high electricity rates.
The group was led by Seiji Murata, 66, who currently serves as chairman of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.
Murata and like-minded bureaucrats set their sights on separation of the power transmission business from regional utilities.
They discussed revisions to the Electric Utilities Industry Law at the Electricity Industry Committee of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy.
The electric power industry, alarmed by the challenge, turned to politicians.
Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers created a panel within the party in April 2000 to draw up a Basic Energy Policy Law.
The members include Lower House member Akira Amari, who has close ties to the electric power industry, and Upper House member Tokio Kano, former TEPCO executive vice president.
Several TEPCO employees, who were on a leave of absence, helped Kano with the legislation. Kano retired from politics in 2010.
A draft bill referred to "securing stable supply," a wording aimed at preventing separation of the power transmission business.
It did not mention "nuclear power," but Amari told a Diet session, "Nuclear power is an excellent energy that goes with the basic law."
The bill's sponsors included Hiroyuki Hosoda, an LDP Lower House member who later became chief Cabinet secretary. The basic law passed the Diet in June 2002.
Two months later, however, TEPCO was found to have covered up problems at nuclear power plants.
Murata, who had just become administrative vice minister in July, told reporters that TEPCO, which was allowed to supply electricity exclusively in its service areas, betrayed what the government had expected.
TEPCO officials suspected that Murata might have allowed the scandal to break to push through separation of the power transmission business.
The electric power industry fought back.
Diet members supported by the industry expressed opposition to a new coal tax designed to curb global warming, which was being discussed at the Electricity Industry Committee together with the electric industry deregulation.
Murata and other champions of liberalization were obliged to rescind their plans to separate the power transmission business to ensure that the coal tax would be introduced.
Diet members backed by the electric power industry also exerted pressure on what should be included in the government's Basic Energy Plan that was being drawn up.
The plan, compiled in October 2003, said nuclear power is positioned as a core electricity source and that integrated services, from power generation to transmission and distribution, are needed.
The momentum for electric power industry deregulation was lost after Murata retired from the ministry in summer 2004.
Amari became industry minister in 2006. When falsification of inspection data at nuclear power plants came to light in January 2007, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency did not pursue management responsibility of electric power companies.
Even after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, industry executives and Diet members supported by businesses are saying that nuclear power generation should be promoted.