In doing background research for an upcoming series of articles I’m writing on Japan’s Smart Energy Revolution, I discovered an incorrect translation of the official report from the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC).
The report, released in Japanese on September 21, 2012, followed less than a month later by the English translation on October 17. It’s supposed to be the definitive, independent assessment of the nuclear accident. The report clearly calls the accident “manmade” and is very critical of TEPCO’s (Tokyo Electric Power Company) management before and during the crisis. The report received significant international press coverage.
This paragraph was often sighted as proof of TEPCO’s incompetence:
The 3rd paragraph of “The accident” section on page 12 says (link): “There was a back-up 66kV transmission line from the transmission network of Tohoku Electric Power Company, but the back-up line failed to feed Unit 1 via a metal-clad type circuit (M/C) of Unit 1 due to mismatched sockets.”
Sounds about right. The world’s second largest nuclear disaster could have been prevented had TEPCO only had the right kind of plug on their industrial-size extension cord. This sounds like a great opportunity for Smart Energy (heck, it sounds like a great opportunity for a smart anything).
So I dug further.
Here’s the original Japanese report (link): 東北電力の送電網から受電する66kV東電原子力線が予備送電線として用意されていたが、1号機金属閉鎖配電盤（M/C）に接続するケーブルの不具合のため同送電線から受電することもできず、全ての外部電源を喪失した。
It turns out that the original version – and many official reports from other agencies – describe the problem as a “cable defect” or “defective cable” (ケーブルの不具合 – keeburu no fuguai) – no mention of a socket mismatch anywhere. Which is too bad, since it’s such a great story.
Fuguai (不具合) is a common technical term for defect or bug (when I was working as an engineer in Japan, I created lots of them).
I bet this is what happened…
The non-technical translator Googled ケーブルの不具合. If you do, you’ll get a bunch of pictures of cables that don’t work. Hard-drive cables are particularly popular. In the electronics world, cables often have a socket (a.k.a. connector) on each end. The most common problem with hard-drive cables seems to be when the wrong wire gets attached to the wrong pin in the socket. So maybe that’s how “cable defect” became “socket mismatch” – or maybe the translators were being creative or just plain mean. In any case, they got it wrong.
There’s a fuguai in the translation.
There’s a much deeper story. The earthquake had already blacked out the local grid. So, even if the back-up cable had been in perfect condition, it had no power to offer the crippled power plant. On this point, the official report – in both English and Japanese – is very misleading.
* * *
The earthquake caused all the major power plants on the east coast of Tohoku to shut down. To restore the balance between supply and demand, 40% of the load needed to be immediately unplugged. The not-so-smart grid couldn’t just unplug low priority loads like copy machines, coffee makers, and pachinko parlors. All it could do was automatically pull the plug on town-size sections of the grid – whether or not those sections powered hospitals, traffic lights, or backup systems at nuclear power plants.
Now that’s an opportunity for Smarter Energy!