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Team of int'l experts to advise on safety culture at TEPCO

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 1:29pm
The Associated Press

Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant chief Akira Ono leaves after speaking to the media inside Seismic Isolated Building, or command center, at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima, northeastern Japan, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. The plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co., has recently had a series of mishaps, including leaks of radioactive water from storage tanks. The incidents, many of them caused by human error, have added to concerns about TEPCO's ability to safely close down the plant, which suffered multiple meltdowns after being hit by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Tomohiro Ohsumi, Pool)LONDON, Dec. 4 (Kyodo) — An international taskforce of nuclear experts will start meeting in January to advise Tokyo Electric Power Co. on safety issues, according to Barbara Judge, who has been called in by the Japanese utility to draw up a new culture and standards.

Judge, former chairwoman of Britain's Atomic Energy Authority, is currently assembling a team of six experts who will gather about four times a year to assess plans by the utility, known as TEPCO, to improve the safety culture at its plants.

Judge was appointed by TEPCO following criticism of the company's attitude to safety in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011.

Three reactors suffered core meltdowns after cooling systems were left without power following the huge earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.

Judge has already established an office within the company to oversee working practices led by a former colleague from Britain. This newly created body of international experts will review the work of this office and provide best practice from all over the world.

"This taskforce will be a way to give the Japanese and TEPCO the benefit of international expertise on the specific issue of safety which is what they need in order to reopen the plants," Judge told Kyodo News.

"No one country can ever have enough experience...it needs cooperation and collaboration," she said.

Judge is the deputy chairwoman of an advisory committee of outside experts set up by TEPCO. The body is led by former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein.

Judge, a lawyer who has also worked in banking, has been visiting Japan since the 1980s and says she feels "honored" to have been given this role.

She says safety must now be an absolute priority for everyone working at TEPCO and staff should be actively praised for raising any worries relating to safety.

"Our goal is to have the best safety culture in the world. We know the Japanese can do it," said Judge.

Previously she had been critical about the pace and quality of reforms at TEPCO, but now feels the company is now "doing a good job" and is genuinely committed to cleaning up its act.

"If I thought they were paying lip-service to what I was suggesting and the Nuclear Safety Oversight Office (the in-house regulator set up by Judge), I wouldn't be wasting my time. We (Klein and Judge) feel it's our job to be independent and critical," she said.

Judge believes that despite recent setbacks nuclear energy is essential to revitalize Japan's economy.

"At the moment Japan is buying liquefied natural gas (LNG) at the highest price in the world and I don't think, even with wind, sun and LNG, that enough power will be generated to bring the economy back to where it should be," she said.

She feels TEPCO should be allowed to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture as long as it meets all the requirements laid down by the new regulator.

Judge argues that as well as safety, TEPCO needs to improve its public relations.

"It's important for TEPCO and other producers to start communicating with the public about what goes on in the plants and talk about the benefits and detriments in an even-handed fashion," she said.

Judge says TEPCO's public communications are getting better and she would like to see the utility create visitor centers at reactor sites in order to increase awareness.

TEPCO has also been criticized for delays in informing the public about leaks of radioactive material into the ocean.

Work is currently under way at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to remove assemblies from the spent fuel pool in the No. 4 reactor building. It is expected to take up to 40 years to decommission the plant.

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