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Yes, an earthquake and tsunami struck Fukushima and resulted in a meltdown at the Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan, but one new study is saying the quake could have caused damage to the safety systems before the flooding ever occurred.

If that claim ends up being true, then safety system designs will have to change throughout Japan and maybe the world.

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The March 11, 2011 accident, which set off a wave of reactor safety investigations around the world, “cannot be regarded as a natural disaster,” the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission’s chairman, Tokyo University professor emeritus Kiyoshi Kurokawa, wrote in a report released in Tokyo. It “could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

The failures involved regulators working with plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to avoid implementing safety measures as well as a government lacking commitment to protect the public, the report said.

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The report dealt the harshest critique yet to TEPCO and the government. The findings couldn’t rule out the possibility the magnitude-9 earthquake damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi No. 1 reactor and safety equipment before the ensuing tsunami swamped the facility. This is a departure from other reports that concluded the reactors withstood the earthquake, only to suffer damage when the ensuing tsunami slammed into the plant.

This finding may have implications for all Japan’s atomic plant operators if it leads to tougher earthquake-resistance standards. The operators reported combined losses of 1.6 trillion yen ($20 billion) in the year ended March owing to safety shutdowns of the country’s 50 reactors and higher fuel bills when they started up gas and oil-fired plants.

If the Fukushima reactor already suffered injury by the quake when the tsunami hit, it would force regulators to reconsider the seismic criteria that all Japan’s plants need to follow, said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California who has researched nuclear safety in Japan.

Two reactors run by Kansai Electric Power Co. won approval to restart this month, despite protests outside the prime minister’s office in Tokyo that drew as many as 20,000 people on June 29. A Mainichi newspaper poll on June 4 showed as many as 71 percent of Japanese opposed the restarts.

The report said the commission found evidence of “collusion” between TEPCO and regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, to avoid implementing new safety regulations.

TEPCO also exploited its cozy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations. “Across the board, the Commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power,” the report said.

The six-month independent investigation, the first of its kind with wide-ranging subpoena powers in Japan’s constitutional history, held public hearings with former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Tokyo Electric’s ex-President Masataka Shimizu, who gave conflicting accounts of the disaster response.

Three other investigations led by the government, the utility and a private foundation said in earlier reports they found no evidence of major damage to reactor buildings and equipment at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear station from last year’s quake. They concluded the plant suffered from the 13-meter (43 foot) tsunami that followed the quake, knocking out backup power generation and causing the meltdown of three reactors.

Radiation fallout from the reactors forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people and left land in the area uninhabitable for decades.

Mutsuhito Tanaka, a former nuclear equipment engineer at a unit of Hitachi Ltd. and a member of the commission, and Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, are among those who have said the quake may have caused more damage to the Fukushima plant than so far reported.

The commission’s report said government mismanagement made the Fukushima situation worse. TEPCO can’t use the government as a scapegoat as its own information disclosure through the disaster was lacking, the report said.

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