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The Fukushima nuclear disaster was "man-made"

Last year's Fukushima nuclear catastrophe was "man-made" and "the result of collusion" between the government, regulators and the company operating the nuclear plants, a report commissioned by Japan's Parliament has charged.

For Americans, the stinging report, the result of months of investigation, raises questions about the recent push for expansion of nuclear power plants in the U.S.

"It's a worldwide problem: the nuclear industry has taken control of the regulators," says Arnie Gunderson, a former nuclear industry engineer and manager who now works with the nonprofit Fairewinds Energy Education.

In Japan, the government, regulators, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), "effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents," says the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report, released July 5.

Commission Chairman Kiroshi Kurokawa, a doctor, fellow of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, and former president of the Science Council of Japan, wrote in an introductory message:

"The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster - that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.

Japan sits in a volcanic zone. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunamis, occur several times a century.

Nevertheless, said Kurokawa, the report "catalogues a multitude of errors and willful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared" for the earthquake and tsunami. It also notes "serious deficiencies in the response to the accident by TEPCO, regulators and the government."

Kurokawa writes that over time in Japan, "nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion." He points to "a tightly knit elite with enormous financial resources" and bureaucrats who "put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety."

"it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents," he said.

In language that sounds familiar in the American scene, the commission concluded that:

"From TEPCO's perspective, new regulations would have interfered with plant operations and weakened their stance in potential lawsuits. That was enough motivation for TEPCO to aggressively oppose new safety regulations and draw out negotiations with regulators via the Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC). The regulators should have taken a strong position on behalf of the public, but failed to do so."

The commission says, "The underlying issue is the social structure that results in 'regulatory capture,' and the organizational, institutional, and legal framework that allows individuals to justify their own actions, hide them when inconvenient, and leave no records in order to avoid responsibility.

In what amounts to a call to grassroots activism, Kurokawa concludes, "each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society."

Japan has been operating without nuclear power since early May when the last of its 50 working reactors was shut down, officially for a scheduled safety check. Since the Fukushima disaster, a growing movement has been demanding that Japan adopt a nuclear-free energy policy.

Anti-nuclear protests have ratcheted up across Japan since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on June 16 okayed the restart of two nuclear reactors at the Oi plant, in an area full of seismic faults, AFP reported. Noda's claims that the reactors would be safe have been met with public skepticism. His claims are "truly the return to the now discredited nuclear "safety myth," the Japanese Communist Party newspaper Akahata editorialized. The restart "indicates that the Noda cabinet has given in to the demands of major businesses that promote the continuation of reliance on nuclear power generation," said Akahata.

On June 29, a crowd estimated as high as 200,000 jammed the streets to protest outside the prime minister's residence in Tokyo.

Weekly Friday protests have been held outside Noda's residence since March. Among the leaders has been Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe, who started an anti-nuclear petition that has so far gathered more than 7.5 million signatures, according to AFP.

In the U.S., many experts criticize the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as too cozy with the nuclear power industry. The NRC was created by Congress in 1974, because of conflict-of-interest concerns about the previous Atomic Energy Commission, which was supposed to both promote nuclear power and at the same time regulate it.

"However," writes investigative journalist Karl Grossman, "the same extreme pro-nuclear culture of the AEC continued on at the NRC."

Grossman, author of "Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power," points out that "neither the AEC, in its more than 25 years, nor the NRC, in its nearly 30 years, ever denied an application for a construction or operating license for a nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime in the United States."

"The NRC is a rubberstamp for the nuclear industry," he says.

This article was first published in People’s World by Susan Webb.

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