Detroit bureau chief
Kevin's Feed
Aug 2, 2011

U.S. auto sales tick up but consumer doubts persist

DETROIT (Reuters) – Major automakers posted July U.S. sales that ticked higher from the slump of recent months, but failed to dispel doubts about the strength of the economy and the mood of American consumers.

“We’re seeing that the consumer confidence is pretty fragile right now because of everything that’s happened in the past few months,” General Motors Co’s U.S. sales chief, Don Johnson, told reporters on a conference call.

Aug 2, 2011

GM’s July U.S. sales rise about 8 percent

DETROIT (Reuters) – General Motors Co on Tuesday posted a 7.6 percent sales gain in July on stronger demand for compact vehicles including the Chevrolet Cruze car and Equinox crossover.

GM said U.S. sales rose to 214,915 new cars and light trucks, within the range of analysts’ expectations and up from 199,692 vehicles last year.

Jul 26, 2011

Special report: Fukushima long ranked most hazardous plant

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world for radiation exposure years before it was destroyed by the meltdowns and explosions that followed the March 11 earthquake.

For five years to 2008, the Fukushima plant was rated the most hazardous nuclear facility in Japan for worker exposure to radiation and one of the five worst nuclear plants in the world on that basis. The next rankings, compiled as a three-year average, are due this year.

Jul 26, 2011

Fukushima long ranked Japan’s most hazardous nuclear plant

TOKYO, July 26 (Reuters) – Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
plant ranked as one of the most dangerous in the world for
radiation exposure years before it was destroyed by the
meltdowns and explosions that followed the March 11 earthquake.
    For five years to 2008, the Fukushima plant was rated the
most hazardous nuclear facility in Japan for worker exposure to
radiation and one of the five worst nuclear plants in the world
on that basis. The next rankings, compiled as a three-year
average, are due this year.
    Reuters uncovered these rankings, privately tracked by
Fukushima’s operator Tokyo Electric Power, in a review of
documents and presentations made at nuclear safety conferences
over the past seven years.
    In the United States — Japan’s early model in nuclear power
– Fukushima’s lagging safety record would have prompted more
intensive inspections by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It
would have also invited scrutiny from the U.S. Institute of
Nuclear Power Operations, an independent nuclear safety
organization established by the U.S. power industry after the
Three Mile Island accident in 1979, experts say.
    But that kind of stepped-up review never happened in Tokyo,
where the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency remains an
adjunct of the trade ministry charged with promoting nuclear
power.
    As Japan debates its future energy policy after the worst
nuclear accident since Chernobyl, a Reuters review of the
long-troubled record at Fukushima shows how hard it has been to
keep the country’s oldest reactors running in the best of times.
It also shows how Japan’s nuclear establishment sold nuclear
power to the public as a relatively cheap energy source in part
by putting cost-containment ahead of radiation safety over the
past several decades.
    “After the Fukushima accident, we need to reconsider the
cost of nuclear power,” Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of
Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission, told Reuters. “It’s not enough
to meet safety standards. The industry needs to search for the
best performance.”
  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    Read story in a PDF: link.reuters.com/vad82s
    Graphic on TEPCO:            link.reuters.com/kyj72s
    Graphic on dangerous plants: link.reuters.com/myj72s
    Radiation at Fukushima       link.reuters.com/qyj72s
    Special reports on Japan     r.reuters.com/tec78r
  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    In an illustration of the scale of the safety problems at
Fukushima, Tokyo Electric had set a 10-year goal that insiders
considered ambitious in 2007. The plan was to reduce radiation
exposure for workers at Fukushima to bring the facility from
near rock-bottom in the industry’s global safety rankings to
somewhere below-average by 2017, documents show.
    “Severer management than before will be required,” Tokyo
Electric safety researcher Yasunori Kokubun and four other
colleagues said in an English-language 2004 report. That report
examined why Japan lagged other countries such as France and the
United States in limiting radiation exposure for workers during
plant maintenance.
    The report came from an earlier period of corporate soul
searching by Tokyo Electric, a politically powerful regional
monopoly in Japan that ran the Fukushima power station and
remains in charge of the clean-up work at the crippled plant
expected to take a decade or more.
    In 2002, the chairman and president of the utility were
forced to step down after regulators concluded the company had
routinely filed false reports during safety inspections and hid
evidence of trouble at its reactors, including Fukushima. All 17
of Tokyo Electric’s reactors were ordered shut down. The last of
those did not restart until 2005.
   
    COST-SAVING CULTURE
    As part of a bid to win back public trust, the utility
promised to repair a “safety culture” it said had failed in the
scandal. Teams of newly empowered radiation safety managers were
created and began to audit the company’s nuclear operations,
including Fukushima. They also reported back findings to other
nuclear plant operators and regulators. None of the utility’s
safety managers who gave those archived presentations responded
to requests for comment for this report.
    One problem, according to one of those early assessments,
was that Tokyo Electric’s managers on the ground tended to put
cost savings ahead of a commitment to keep driving worker
radiation doses “as low as reasonably achievable,” the
international standard for safety.
    Take maintenance, for instance. Japanese plants are required
to shut down every 13 months for almost four months at a time –
twice as long as the U.S. average. Tepco was slow to invest in
the more expensive radiation safety precautions needed during
maintenance, thus lowering the cost of operating Fukushima
before the accident. 
    But that focus on costs also kept Tepco from developing a
more active commitment to worker safety that could have helped
it navigate the March disaster, officials now say.
    After the earthquake, contract workers at Fukushima were
sent in without radiation meters or basic gear such as rubber
boots. Screening for radiation from dust and vapor inhaled by
workers was delayed for weeks until experts said the testing was
almost meaningless. At least 39 workers were exposed to more
than 100 millisieverts of radiation, five times the maximum
allowed in a normal year.
    Fukushima Daiichi, built in a poor region on Japan’s Pacific
Coast to supply power to Tokyo, was pushed into crisis by the
massive March 11 earthquake and the tsunami that hit less than
an hour later. The backup power systems meant to keep its
radioactive fuel cool were disabled, leading to meltdowns,
explosions and radiation spewing into the environment, forcing
the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents.
    Goshi Hosono, the government minister appointed to
coordinate Japan’s response to the Fukushima crisis, said he was
not aware of the details of Fukushima’s radiation safety record
before March 11 and declined to comment on that basis.
    But he said the utility had failed to protect workers in the
chaos that followed the accident, prompting a reprimand from
government officials and a decision by regulators to take charge
of radiation health monitoring at the plant.
    “In normal times, radiation monitoring would be left to the
plant operator, but these are not normal times,” Hosono told
Reuters.
   
    HIGHER RADIATION IN OLD PLANTS
    In a June report to the International Atomic Energy Agency,
Japanese officials said basic design failures, a fatal
underestimation of tsunami risk and a chaotic decision-making
process had contributed to the disaster. But they also said
Tokyo Electric’s “safety culture” had failed it again.
    Outside experts agreed. “The main root causes of this
man-made disaster can be found in (Tokyo Electric’s)
ineffective  — exemplary poor — safety practices and track
record,” said Najim Meshkati, an engineering professor at the
University of Southern California and former U.S. government
science advisor.
    In response to questions about the radiation safety record
at Fukushima, Tokyo Electric said that radiation exposure for
each individual worker at the plant had been kept below the
regulatory standard. The overall radiation level remained
relatively high because the plant’s six reactors were all
between 30 and 40 years old at the time of the accident, the
utility said.
    “Because it was

Jul 19, 2011

Japan cites Fukushima progress but sees long road ahead

TOKYO, July 19 (Reuters) – Japan’s government said on
Tuesday it was on track with efforts to take control of the
crippled Fukushima nuclear plant but cautioned that a final
clean-up of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl would
take many years.

The update on progress to shut down six reactors at the
Fukushima Daiichi plant comes four months after a massive
earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at the
complex and triggered a series of core meltdowns and explosions.

Jul 15, 2011

Japan to make stress tests routine for nuclear checks

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan will make new “stress tests” for nuclear reactors, ordered after the Fukushima disaster, a routine part of safety checks to determine how long plants can remain in operation, Japan’s nuclear crisis minister said on Friday.

Goshi Hosono, the minister charged with coordinating Tokyo’s response to the Fukushima nuclear accident, also said it was inevitable that nuclear power would decline as a share of Japan’s energy supply as ageing plants are decommissioned.

Jun 28, 2011

Japan utility gets to keep nuclear reactors despite shareholder ire

TOKYO, June 28 (Reuters) – The utility at the heart of
Japan’s atomic crisis, Tokyo Electric Power Co , won
institutional shareholder backing on Tuesday to keep its
reactors in the face of anger from rank-and-file stockholders
seeking an end to nuclear energy.

A motion filed at the utility’s annual general meeting would
have forced managers to scrap all nuclear reactors and stop
building new ones, reflecting a wider debate in Japan and other
countries over the future of atomic power generation.

Jun 28, 2011

Japan utility faces shareholder wrath over nuclear crisis

TOKYO, June 28 (Reuters) – The utility at the heart of
Japan’s nuclear crisis, Tokyo Electric Power Co , faced
pressure on Tuesday from heckling shareholders to shut all its
reactors in a sign of growing Japanese opposition to nuclear
energy.

Activist shareholders may struggle, however, to convince
long-term institutional investors such as the biggest
shareholder, Dai-ichi Life Insurance , to change their
minds and vote for a resolution to abandon atomic energy.

Jun 28, 2011

Tepco shareholder vote may determine nuclear fate

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo Electric Power Co shareholders gathered in record numbers on Tuesday for an annual meeting that will vote on a stockholder motion calling for the utility to abandon nuclear power.

Although proposed annually by anti-nuclear activist shareholders, the proposal to scrap nuclear power this year takes on greater resonance with radiation still escaping from damaged reactors at the utility’s plant in Fukushima, 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of the capital.

Jun 28, 2011

Tepco shareholders meeting starts amid nuclear

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo Electric Power Co (9501.T: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) shareholders gathered on Tuesday for their annual meeting, to vote on new board appointments and decide a stockholder motion calling for the utility to abandon nuclear power.

Although proposed annually by anti-nuclear activist shareholders, the proposal to scrap all reactors this year takes on greater resonance with radiation still escaping from reactors at its plant in Fukushima, 240 km (150 miles) north of the capital.

    • About Kevin

      "Kevin Krolicki is Reuters bureau chief in Detroit where he has been based since 2006. He has also worked as an editor and reporter in Los Angeles and Tokyo."
    • Follow Kevin