In their first meeting since Japan created a new, more independent nuclear agency 13 months ago, the top regulator on Monday urged the head of the utility that runs the crippled Fukushima plant to take "drastic steps" to mitigate a spate of mishaps at the complex.
Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka summoned Tokyo Electric Power Co. President Naomi Hirose to his office to express concerns about growing problems at the plant, including human errors that have led to a series of leaks of contaminated water used to cool the damaged reactors.
Human error is mostly to blame for the recent mishaps, as workers deal with a string of crises. Tanaka said earlier this month the repeated "silly mistakes" are a sign of declining morale and sense of responsibility. TEPCO acknowledged a systemic problem in a recent report: Workers under tight deadlines tend to cut corners, making mistakes more likely; at times, they don't fully understand their assignment or procedures.
Hirose acknowledged that TEPCO is having trouble finding a stable pool of workers at the plant, but promised to send more staff from other locations to Fukushima, where three reactors melted down in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
It was the first time Tanaka met with a utility president in part because of his attempt to counter criticism that the previous nuclear regulator, which was under the wing of the trade and industry ministry, was too close to the utility sector.
Such criticism contributed to the creation last year of a separate, independent nuclear regulator that Tanaka now heads.
Agency officials said the meeting indicated Tanaka's grave concerns. Tanaka and other commissioners have said they plan to step forward to provide more proactive instructions in the future.
He told Hirose that resolving the problems requires "drastic steps" with a long-term vision, not procedural or manual changes as TEPCO has suggested, Katsuhiko Ikeda, administrative head of the agency, told reporters after the talks which he also attended. The meeting was closed except for few minutes at the beginning.
Tanaka also urged the plant to do more to reduce radioactivity at the site to allow workers to work without full-face masks, which distract communication and contribute to hard working conditions.
Hirose acknowledged that TEPCO has been cutting costs and that the precarious state of the plant, as it faces problems such as new leaks from storage tanks, have added to the deterioration of the plant's operational quality.