With all of the disarray in the nuclear village of Japan, there had to be a story of someone doing something right. I finally found one: Tōhoku Electric Power Company, called Tōho Den, which is located in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, which runs the Onagawa nuclear power plant.
Why did the Onagawa NPP survive the disaster of March 11? It experienced the highest ground shaking of all of the NPP in Japan and also survived a 13m tsunami.
The story begins in 1968 when Hirai Yanosuke joined the costal planning committee for the construction of the Onagawa NPP. Hirai-san was a former VP at Tōho Den and a former head of technology research at the Central Research Institute of the Electric Power Industry. He died in 1986.
Hirai-san was apparently the only person on the entire project to push for the 14.8-meter breakwater. Many of his colleagues said that 12 meters would be sufficient, and they derided Hirai-san’s proposal as excessive. Hirai-san’s authority and drive, however, eventually prevailed, and Tōhoku Electric spent the extra money to build the 14.8m tsunami wall. Some 40 years later, on March 11, 2011, the 13m tsunami struck the coast at Onagawa.
Another of Hirai-san’s proposals also helped save the plant during the disaster. Expecting the sea to draw back before a tsunami, he made sure the plant’s cooling system was designed so it could still draw water for the reactors.
Hirai-san’s had a strong sense of duty. He took responsibility for the results of his decisions. He wasn’t the sort to believe that everything would be all right as long as people fulfilled standards and procedures. Though he paid careful attention to regulations, compliance was never his goal. Hirai-san was the kind of manager and engineer to exceed regulations to ensure safety.
Hirai-san’s spirit pervaded the Tōho Den corporate culture: they performed costly seismic and tsunami retrofits as well as trained their staff on emergency procedures for SBO … before March 11.
When the tsunami hit the Onagawa area, many people in nearby villages were left homeless. The Tōho Den staff took over 300 people in and set up quarters for them in the Onagawa NPP gymnasium. When there was neither food nor blankets for them, the NPP staff gave them the food and blankets meant for the staff. The next day, the Executive VP of Tōho Den, Umeda-san, went to Onagawa by helicopter, the earthquake and tsunami made driving impossible, to bring more food and clothing to the people in the gymnasium.
And the Onagawa staff worked tirelessly to bring the plant into cold shutdown despite the daily pressure and a 7.2Mw aftershock that threatened already weakened structures, equipment, and infrastructure. Needless to say they worked without sleep with some of them knowing that friends and family had died from the tsunami.
We should not underestimate the importance of having local people running and managing a nuclear power facility. The Onagawa NPP is owned by a Tōhoku company located in Sendai, managed by Tōhoku people, and staffed by Tōhoku people.
It reminded me of the first time I was at the NoK NPP in Beznau, Switzerland, to look at the Notstand building, a bunkered facility which could support all of the plant systems for at least 72 hours given a severe flood or earthquake which could take out the normal power and cooling facilities. I asked Martin Richner, the head of risk assessment, why Beznau spent so much money on the Notstand building when there was no regulation or government directive to do so. Martin answered me, “Woody, we live here.”
Everyone in Japan knows the poet laureate of Tōhoku, Miyzawa Kenji. His poem, Ame ni mo makezu, or in English, Not losing to the rain, captures the heart and spirit of the Tōhoku people and the managers, staff, and engineers of Tōhoku Electric Power Company. To Umeda-san, Yaegashi-san, Sasagawa-san, Tanaka-san, Wakabayashi-san, Inoue-san, Itoh-san, Hirata-san, Ogata-san, and to all of my new friends and colleagues at the Tōhoku Electric Power Company, I am proud to know you.
not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind …
… in everything
count yourself last and put others
watching, listening, understanding
and not forgetting …
… such a person
I want to become.