Tepco’s safety chief has no ‘magic wand’ for Fukushima
Expert brought in to instil culture of safety has found difficult task made worse by recent leaks
Ten months after she was appointed to institute a new culture of safety at Tokyo Electric Power Company, Barbara Judge now knows the full scale of the task.
Shifting attitudes at a company synonymous with the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a firm that traditionally put efficiency ahead of safety, will take a long time, but she is adamant it will happen.
"When I look at what has happened, it is worse than I thought when I was first asked to help the company," she said. "There had always been this huge focus on efficiency and the belief that is what makes the best operator. There was no sense of need to be the safest operator.
"No-one can come in, wave a magic wand and change a corporation's habits of a lifetime," said Judge, an eminent Anglo-American lawyer-turned-businesswoman who chaired the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. "People's attitudes are ingrained and while it's not as if they were not obeying the rules on safety, there was simply no focus on that side of operations."
Tepco hired Judge in October to oversee its safety operations. Now, 29 months after the second-worst nuclear disaster in history, Tepco is once again on front pages after the Fukushima plant leaked hundreds of tonnes of highly radioactive water.
Judge has nothing to do with the ongoing engineering problems or regaining control of the plant's reactors. Instead, she is focused on instilling the sense of safety as being paramount.
"Yes, it has been demoralising, but what has impressed me is how these people have continued to respond to the crisis, how these brave men and women have been working day and night to deal with the leaks, the decommissioning efforts, caring for the displaced people and all the other tasks," she said. "They have done all that without complaining … they're heroes."
However, changes in attitudes need to come from the top.
"It's got to be a long-term thing - when I came in I said I expected it to be at least a three-year process - and there is simply no silver bullet to change attitudes," said Judge, who lived in Hong Kong for four years in the mid-1980s and worked for a merchant bank and was awarded the CBE in June 2010 for services to the nuclear and financial services industries.
Immediately after joining Tepco, Judge set up the Nuclear Safety Oversight Office and brought in respected nuclear safety expert Dr John Cross.
"We are putting the most internationally-minded people in Tepco around him, the rising stars, as we want it to be the place for the brightest and best," she said. "We needed a group who are not afraid to talk to international experts.
"Japanese culture can be very closed in that way but I believe this company needs international assistance and guidance to get where it wants to be."
Compliance was previously considered a dead end on the corporate ladder at Tepco, but Judge is making it a prestigious place that will advance careers instead of stalling them.
Another innovation is requiring all senior executives to undergo safety courses to put in place a culture of safety at the top. But hurdles remain.
"Not everybody wants a different culture," Judge said. "We just have to make sure that the ones that don't want to do it do not stay around and that the rest can get with the programme."
It has already taken a degree of courage for Tepco to turn to a foreigner - and a woman - to change corporate attitudes, but Judge believes it is time for a more radical approach to making runaway reactors safe.
"There is an idea circulating that maybe it is the right time to separate the decommissioning effort from everything else, which is something I was involved in when I was chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority," she said. "That would leave the operators free to operate its plants and organisations with a history of decommissioning to tackle that at Fukushima."