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Japan underestimated tsunami risk to nuclear plant, says UN watchdog

The International Atomic Energy Agency commended Japan’s response to the crisis, but said the Fukushima plant was ill-prepared for the tsunami which struck on 11 March.

Handout photo from TEPCO showing the tsunami approaching the fuel oil takes of Reactor 5 at the Fukushima plant.
Handout photo from TEPCO showing the tsunami approaching the fuel oil takes of Reactor 5 at the Fukushima plant.
Image: TEPCO/Kyodo/AP/PA Images

A UN NUCLEAR safety team on a fact-finding mission to Japan has said the country underestimated the risk of a tsunami hitting a nuclear power plant, but said the Japanese response to the subsequent crisis was “exemplary”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent a team of international experts to Japan to visit the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and learn about the lessons Japan has gleaned from the disaster.

The plant was seriously damaged when it was struck by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Power to the plant’s cooling system was disconnected, leading to a meltdown in three of the facility’s six reactor units. Plant officials are still working to bring the plant to a cold shutdown.

The IAEA said that, to date, no person has reported health effects as a result of radiation exposure from the accident, but suggested that monitoring the health and exposure levels of workers and the public in the long term would be “beneficial”.

The IAEA said today that while the Fukushima facility was designed to withstand tsunami waves of 5.7 metres in height, the plant was actually struck by waves over 14 metres high, which “reached areas deep within the [power plant's] units”. The station blackout meant officials had to work in “arduous” circumstances, which included working “in darkness with almost no instrumentation and control systems to secure the safety of  six reactors, six associated fuel pools, a common fuel pool, and dry cask storage.”

However, the IAEA commended the response to the accident as “exemplary” and resulting in the “best approach to securing safety given the exceptional circumstances”. The plant’s operators, TEPCO, and the Japanese government have been under public pressure over the accident and have been accused of failing to provide timely information to the public.

Today, TEPCO spokesperson Junichi Matsumoto said that the company hopes the IAEA’s investigation findings “will be shared as a common international asset and used in a way that will contribute to nuclear safety around the world”.

The IAEA group released its preliminary report today; the full report is due to be presented at an IAEA conference in Vienna later this month.

Over 14,000 people were killed in the earthquake and tsunami and another 10,000 remain missing. The 80,000 people who were evacuated from the area surrounding the Fukushima power plant as a result of leaking radiation have not yet been allowed to return home.

- Additional reporting by the AP

Read the IAEA’s preliminary report in full >

Read: Japanese PM faces no confidence vote over Fukushima crisis >

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