After hearing the term “meltdown” used so often as a metaphor for the financial crisis, it is shocking to confront the prospect of a literal meltdown at some of Japan’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. There is something the two situations have in common: corporate misconduct.
The company that operates the heavily damaged reactors, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), is one of the most unethical large corporations that I have ever examined. It has an astounding history of deceptions and cover-ups made all the more egregious by the grave risks inherent in the business of generating nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes.
TEPCO’s transgressions first came to light in 2002, after Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency belatedly began to investigate whistleblower allegations that the company had regularly falsified repair reports and inspection data concerning its nukes. The agency found evidence that the company had engaged in the deception for some 15 years, in some cases concealing the existence of cracks in the steel plates surrounding reactor cores as well as other defects.
The uproar over the revelations forced TEPCO’s president and chairman to resign. This was not just a matter of higher-ups taking responsibility for the misdeeds of underlings. There were reports that the top executives were aware of what was going on. The scope of the subterfuge also continued to grow, prompting some observers to liken the situation to the big U.S. corporate scandals involving companies such as Enron and WorldCom. TEPCO, which was forced to shut down its reactors for extended periods, later admitted that the data falsifications went back as far as the late 1970s.
In 2007 the company admitted that it had concealed incidents involving the emergency shutdowns of its Fukushima reactors—those involved in the current crisis—back in the mid-1980s. A few months after the admission, TEPCO had to apologize for delays and errors in announcing the extent of the damage at its nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki following an earthquake in the northwestern part of the country. When the whole story became known, local officials ordered TEPCO to shut down the plant.
The incident also prompted criticism of TEPCO for building the plant on top of an active seismic fault. It was unclear whether the company had been unaware of the fault or had ignored its presence; in either case, TEPCO looked highly irresponsible. It was later reported that the company had understated the intensity of the earthquake. The Kashiwazaki plant remained offline for more than two years.
TEPCO’s dishonesty is not limited to its nuclear operations. In 2007 it was one of ten utility companies cited by the Japanese government for falsifying data on the large quantities amounts of river water they used for power generation. TEPCO was found to have submitted bogus information on one of its hydroelectric plants for 13 years.
The mendacity of TEPCO is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese. In May 2010 the company announced it would purchase a 10 percent interest in the South Texas nuclear project, one of a slew of proposed new nukes that hope to receive a share of the billions of dollars in federal assistance promised by the Obama Administration to encourage a nuclear renaissance in the United States, where a new nuclear plant hasn’t opened in decades.
Japan’s disaster is already casting a very dark cloud over the prospects for that renaissance. Debate over new U.S. nukes should not be limited to the technical safety issues. The example of TEPCO raises the question of whether a corporation can be trusted with a technology that has the potential to do such massive harm.