Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wine Buyers Look Online for Lafite and Latour

As Hong Kong's glitzy hotels play host to ever more wine auctions, with furious paddle-waving and Asian bidders showered with samples of expensive bottles, a new battle for sales is taking place online.

Anonymous bidders, identified by screen names like 'LAFITE4EVER' (referring to Asia's favorite, Château Lafite-Rothschild) are buying from the near-constant Internet-only sales offered by the likes of Acker Merrall & Condit, America's oldest wine shop, and California-based Spectrum Wine Auctions.

Compared with traditional sales events, Internet auctions typically offer smaller units of sale (a single bottle, for example, rather than a case) and less-expensive wines. That means online bidders are unlikely to be the trade buyers and investors that crowd live sales.

'It's the drinking man's auction, and it's a great way to get educated,' said John Kapon, president of New York-based Acker, which runs monthly online-only sales. 'There's still a lot of overlap between the Internet and live, but the Internet sales allow us to offer items we can't offer in the live auctions.'

Spectrum runs online-only sales every two weeks, with bottles sold for as little as $1 and as much as $10,000 for a case of Bordeaux's Château Latour. Still, that price pales in comparison with live-auction hauls like the case of Lafite 1982 sold for $77,675 at Spectrum's wine auction last month in Hong Kong.

For those unable to attend live sales in Hong Kong or elsewhere, most other houses offer real-time online bidding during the auctions, sometimes with streaming video of the auctioneer. Online-only sales, however, allow bidders to buy between the live sales.

'We have a continuous flow of wine always online,' said Spectrum President Jason Boland, who noted that Spectrum's last online auction garnered 5,000 bids for around 2,230 lots offered.

Spectrum and Acker both said it's faster to send wine to online buyers than the winners of live sales because of easier logistics. Spectrum plans to launch an application for Apple's iPhone by the end of the summer so people can bid while away from their computers, and Acker expects to overhaul its website later this year to accommodate increasing demand.

Live sales aren't going away any time soon. Acker plans to raise a record $10 million from the Internet this year, yet a single live sale can exceed that. Spectrum said Internet sales are growing fast but account for only 5% of its business so far.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When Innies Love Outies: How Odd Couples Cope

Patricia and Marty Weber were in their walk-in closet one evening, getting dressed for a party, chitchatting about their day, when Ms. Weber made a casual request: 'Honey, I really don't want to be there all night. Can we leave after an hour or so?'

Her husband's response? He took off his tie, threw it on the ground and shouted, 'Just forget the whole thing! We won't go at all!'

Here's an observation: The most complicated marriages may be those between Innies and Outies -- those who like to stay in and those who like to go out. Ask the Webers. He is an extravert. He loves to talk, gather groups of people around him and attend endless brunches, happy hours and networking events. His wife, an introvert, enjoys parties in short doses but prefers to be home reading or spending time with her dog.

Many people believe that introverts, by definition, are shy and extraverts are outgoing. This is incorrect. Introverts and extraverts differ in how they process information. Introverts get their energy internally. Extraverts -- spelled that way in psychology circles -- gain energy from being with other people, often the more the merrier.

There are shy extraverts and outgoing introverts. Most of us have a little of both in us, but lean one way or the other.

Introverts often prefer to spend time alone or in small groups of people, and they tend to carefully gather their thoughts before they speak. Extraverts love to talk and typically 'think out loud,' processing information by talking.

You don't need a degree in psychology to see how this could cause serious problems in a relationship. Introverts and extraverts approach the world in fundamentally different ways. Introverts think extraverts talk too fast, too loud and too much. Extraverts often believe introverts are awkward, withholding or cold.

Facebook, Twitter and other sites that help us stay connected 24/7 are heightening the differences. In today's social-media driven world, it's getting easier for introverts to speak on their own terms, yet it's also getting harder to turn the extraverts off.

The population is split pretty much evenly between introverts and extraverts, according to psychologist Laurie Helgoe, assistant clinical professor at the West Virginia School of Medicine and author of 'Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength.' In a 1998 study conducted by the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (the folks who run the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test), 51% of some 3,000 subjects who were randomly sampled and tested were introverts. In a smaller study in 2001, 57% were introverts. Introverts were pretty evenly split between males and females, too.

The Webers wrestled with their different introversion-extraversion styles. Earlier in their marriage, Ms. Weber, a 62-year-old business coach from Williamsburg, Va., would often become irritated that her husband went out almost every night of the week, sometimes failing to make it home for dinner. (He was an early cellphone user, and she would call on his big, clunky model to berate him.)

Mr. Weber often invited other couples to join them on their weekly 'date night.' His boss once told him his wife needed to socialize more with other executives' wives if he was going to continue to climb the corporate ladder. 'This has been the biggest conflict in our relationship,' says Mr. Weber, 61, an employee-benefits consultant and broker.

The night of the argument, Ms. Weber felt her husband had misunderstood. 'I wasn't saying I didn't want to go to the event,' she says. 'I was just trying to prepare him that I didn't want to stay all night.' They went to the party but on the way there she said, 'Don't be alarmed if I disappear to the bathroom for 20 minutes. I will need to recharge.'

In brain-imaging studies, brains of introverts show more activity in response to external stimuli. This could explain why introverts feel the need to regulate the amount of stimulation coming in. In contrast, extravert brains show more activity in areas related to pleasure-seeking. They find social interactions fun and are driven to create them.

When someone speaks to an introvert, her brain responds with a high level of activity. 'It is as if several lights start flashing on a control panel,' says Dr. Helgoe. The introvert needs to turn inward. If the other person keeps talking, the introvert can become distracted from her mental process and feel overwhelmed.

When introverts and extraverts converse, 'what looks like communication can actually be a problem,' says Dr. Helgoe. The introvert is quiet and appears to be listening; the extravert takes this as a cue to keep talking. 'The introvert may shut out the extravert, perhaps while silently nodding, or stop trying to contribute,' she says. The extravert needs to learn to slow down, but the introvert needs to learn to speak up.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist whose work was the inspiration for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, believed we are drawn to people different from us so that we can learn from them. But Dr. Helgoe says this theory has been largely debunked. Recent research shows marital satisfaction is related to personality similarity. 'Opposites might initially attract,' she says, 'but they can start to repel, if not identified and worked with, over time.'

Tuesday is the Webers' 41st wedding anniversary. It took two decades, they say, but they finally learned to cope with their vastly different styles. Sometimes, they will drive to social events in different cars, so Ms. Weber can leave early if she wants. Mr. Weber goes to a happy hour after work one night a week without his wife.

They also spend every Saturday apart. He meets pals early at Starbucks, stops in at another coffee shop mid-morning to say hi to more friends and gathers a crowd at a local pub for lunch. She stays home and reads, calls her parents, catches up on email and walks the dog.

'Both of you have to mellow out and find what works for you,' say Ms. Weber.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Europe Split Over Debt Crisis Hardens

The dispute between Europe's central bankers and politicians over how to deal with Greece's worsening financial problems intensified, as one of the European Central Bank's top officials rejected calls by Germany and other euro-zone states for a restructuring of Greek debt─calling it a 'horror scenario.'

The comments from Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer, a member of the ECB's governing council, mark the latest salvo in an increasingly heated debate that is fueling fears among investors that the region's debt crisis has entered a dangerous new phase.

The standoff─which has pitted Europe's central bank against Germany and several other euro-zone governments─cuts to the heart of a question at the center of the region's 18-month crisis: how much are the euro area's wealthier members willing to pay to keep the bloc intact.

At issue is whether Greece, barely a year after receiving a 110 billion ($155 billion) bailout, should be forced to default on its obligations or if Europe should extend it more aid. The ECB worries about the consequences even a mild debt restructuring could have on Ireland and other weak euro-zone countries, while leaders in the currency bloc's strong economies, foremost Germany, fear the political cost of further bailouts.

Moody's Investors Service on Tuesday also warned about the consequences of restructuring, saying any Greek debt default would likely torpedo the country's credit for a 'sustained' period, possibly thrusting Greek banks into default and leaving other weak euro countries 'struggling' to stay out of junk territory.

The head of France's Société Générale, one of Greece's creditors, echoed the restructuring concerns, saying it would be difficult to convince investors that Greece was a one-off. There are consequences for 'how the market will look at the European Union and each country,' Société Générale Chief Executive Frédéric Oudéa said in an interview. 'In my view, the issue is not really just the Greek issue.'

The outcome in Greece could hit Ireland, which was forced to seek a bailout last year. Ireland's government is less indebted that Greece's, but its banking system is fragile and fears of debt restructuring could reignite the crisis there.

The disagreement within Europe's leadership revolves around a basic question: What to do as Greece, again, runs out of money? There is broad agreement in Europe that the 110 billion granted last spring isn't enough to get Greece through next year. But there is practically no agreement on how to plug the gap.

Under intense political pressure, leaders in Europe's stronger economies are deeply reluctant to simply write another check. That, many fear, would put the euro zone too far down the road to a fiscal union, in which strong countries have no alternative but to pay for weak countries. Instead, Berlin and its allies want Greece and other weak countries to repair their finances through deep spending cuts and debt restructuring.

The ECB's position is that Greece's financing shortfall must be filled by other euro-zone countries once Athens has exhausted all options for paring its budget and selling its state assets─not by delaying or reducing payments to creditors.

But several key European finance ministers, including Wolfgang Schäuble of Germany and Christine Lagarde of France, have left the door open to a so-called reprofiling of Greece's debt. Under that scenario, Greece's private creditors would be asked to accept repayment later than expected, to help Greece cover its fiscal holes in 2012 and 2013.

Such a rescheduling would lessen─or, in an optimistic scenario─obviate the need for European governments to pay for a second bailout. At the least, a reprofiling would mean that private-sector creditors feel some pain, along with taxpayers.

Since the debt crisis emerged in early 2010, nearly all of official Europe had maintained a euro-zone debt default of any flavor was unthinkable. National leaders feared a loss of prestige and a hit to confidence in the region. ECB officials feared the Continent's fragile banks, unprepared for losses on what they had thought were ultra-safe investments, could collapse.

But as national leaders have faced the consequence of that position─that preventing a euro-zone debt default means they must always be ready to write more bailout checks─they have backed off.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oil's Slide Is Good For Asia, But Comes With Catch

A selloff in commodities is good news in Asia, where inflation has become a major worry -- but not as good as one might think.

Tackling inflation has become a top priority for policy makers from Beijing to New Delhi, who have reacted by steadily tightening credit and letting their currencies appreciate against the dollar. Central banks in both the Philippines and Malaysia raised key interest rates 0.25 percentage point on Thursday. Two days earlier, India surprised markets with a half-point rate rise after inflation jumped to nearly 9% in March.

Commodities are a big part of the problem. louis vuitton wallet for women Announcing its rate increase, Malaysia's central bank cited expectations that commodity and energy prices would remain high all year. In the Philippines, average oil prices reaching $140 a barrel would push inflation to 5%, up from 4.4% with oil at around $100 a barrel, Barclays Capital notes in a report, citing central-bank estimates.

So central bankers should be sighing with relief as oil continues to push lower following its 8.6% plunge in the U.S. to just below $100 a barrel on Thursday. On Friday, the front-month June contract fell another 2.6% to $97.18. The week's 14.7% plunge was the steepest one-week drop since December 2008.

The catch is that declining oil prices reflect vulnerability in the broader economic outlook, which isn't good for Asian exporters. Some of the drop in commodities no doubt comes from investors unwinding positions after a sharp runup in prices. But concerns about the strength of the U.S. recovery linger, despite Friday's positive jobs report, as do worries about sovereign risk in Europe.

Recent purchasing-manager index levels in Asia are another cause for apprehension. They show that manufacturing is still expanding, but inventories are growing, too. Expect exports to feel the impact in coming months -- not great news for a region that still depends on overseas consumers to buy its output.

Even if commodity prices stay lower, which is hardly a given, inflation won't be licked entirely, and rates will still need to climb. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is still predicting rate hikes in India, Malaysia and Thailand later this year, as well as further tightening in China.

The pressure isn't just from commodities. The purchasing power of workers in China receiving newly bumped-up wages is pushing up prices of goods there. Across the region, the price of real estate and other assets has risen from an inflow of global capital seeking to benefit from currency appreciation.

'I wouldn't take down the red flag in Asia,' says Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asia economics at HSBC, who says interest rates and currency-exchange rates across the region are too low for healthy economic development.

Cheaper gas, copper and soybeans might provide welcome ammunition in Asia's battle against inflation, but they don't won't win the war.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Portugal Bailout May Hit $129 Billion

Portugal will need as much as 90 billion euros ($129 billion), including 10 billion euros in June, under a bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, people familiar with the situation said Thursday.

Terms of the package will be discussed in more detail at an EU finance ministers' meeting in Hungary beginning Friday. A formal request for aid was submitted Thursday, a Portuguese government spokesman said.

It will take two to three weeks to work out an austerity program to accompany a bailout with the help of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said Thursday.

The funds are expected to be used to cover Portugal's short-term debt obligations and cash shortfalls at public-service companies, and to repay loans made to nationalized bank Banco Portugues de Negocios.

Funds would also be set aside to cover local banks' potential capital shortfalls, according to one person familiar with the situation.

Portugal will become the third nation in the 17-member currency bloc, after Greece and Ireland, to turn to its peers for help, after concerns over the country's funding capabilities and its heavy debt burden triggered a series of downgrades in its credit ratings.

Portuguese policy makers say there is a growing consensus that a bailout would need to be structured and disbursed in several phases, coming before and after the country's June 5 elections.

The current government and the incoming administration would share the responsibility of negotiating the deal.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Can Mom's Medicine Hurt The Baby?

The list of medications that women shouldn't take in pregnancy keeps getting longer.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration strengthened warnings that expectant mothers who take topiramate (brand name Topamax), for migraines or to control seizures, have an increased risk of giving birth to babies with cleft lips or cleft palates.

Last month, the FDA advised doctors that babies whose mothers took antipsychotic drugs such as Haldol, Zyprexa, Seroquel and Abilify, could suffer withdrawal symptoms such as agitation and difficulty breathing and feeding for hours or days after birth. It also warned that terbutaline, an asthma drug also used to halt preterm labor, should not be used by pregnant women due to the potential for maternal heart problems or death.

Also last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that taking pain relievers containing opioids, such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Tylenol with codeine, just before or in early pregnancy increased the risk of congenital heart defects, glaucoma and other problems.

Ever since the 1960s when thalidomide, a sleep aid and morning-sickness drug, was linked to more than 10,000 babies born with missing or shrunken limbs, it has been known that medications a pregnant woman takes can cross the placenta and affect her unborn child.

But determining what the impact might be for tens of thousands of medications is a Herculean task. The labels on most medicines have little or no information on how they might affect the mother or the fetus, other than advising to check with her doctor. Physicians are often baffled too, since conclusive data on safety in pregnancy don't exist for the majority of prescription medications.

There is not much more known about the safety of over-the-counter drugs. Most experts believe that acetaminophen (Tylenol) is safe to use in all trimesters. But many advise pregnant women not to take aspirin, ibuprofen and some other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), particularly in the third trimester, due to the potential for excess bleeding and other labor complications. Meanwhile, small studies have linked pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in decongestants and other cold remedies, with a higher risk of gastroschisis, in which the baby's intestines grow outside the abdominal wall. Antacids are generally safe, although sodium bicarbonate is absorbed into the bloodstream and can raise a woman's sodium level.

There's so little safety information because it is considered unethical to expose pregnant women and unborn babies to potential risks in randomized-controlled clinical trials used to test drug safety. Yet millions of pregnant women take medications. Studies show that 64% use at least one prescription drug during pregnancy and, on average, women use three to five.

Experts agree that chronic conditions such as asthma, epilepsy, high blood pressure and depression can't go untreated for nine months without posing risks to both mothers and fetuses. For example, if a mother has a severe asthma attack or prolonged seizure, the fetus could be starved for oxygen; untreated hypertension in a mother could stunt her baby's growth or cause preterm labor.

So doctors must carefully weigh the benefits of a medication to both mother and baby against the often uncertain risk that it might interfere with fetal development. Many of the most serious medication risks occur when a baby's vital organs are forming in the first trimester, often before a women knows she's pregnant.

In some cases, mothers and doctors can opt for a substitute medication for the condition that's thought to pose less risk. There is a wide variety of antidepressants, for example, with different associated risks. The popular category called serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is generally considered safe, although some studies have linked a few of them to a higher risk of congential heart defects when taken in the first trimester, and infants suffering withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and seizures for more than a week after birth.

All this information creates some hard choices for mothers-to-be and their health-care providers. Sarah Lieberman Weisz, 36, of Chicago, who takes Wellbutrin, a category C drug for depression, talked it over with her midwife before her first pregnancy. Even though several other antidepressants are considered to be safer during pregnancy, Ms. Weisz had tried others and was reluctant to switch. They found some small-scale studies showing no adverse effects on human fetuses, and no large studies contradicting them. 'To me, that was enough. We decided that the risk of switching and suffering more depression or new side effects was greater than a possible risk to the baby,' says Ms. Weisz, who had a healthy baby boy in 21 months ago and a healthy, baby girl last month.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Japan Plant Had Troubled History

The Fukushima Daiichi power plant was already one of the most trouble-prone nuclear facilities in Japan, even before the devastating earthquake and tsunami that knocked out its cooling systems and precipitated the worst nuclear crisis in 25 years, a Wall Street Journal analysis of regulatory documents shows.

In addition, a standard practice at Japanese nuclear plants─to remove fresh fuel from a reactor and park it for weeks or months in a less-protected 'spent fuel' pool during maintenance─appears to have been a significant contributor to the crisis, engineers say.

On Sunday, disaster-response teams made progress toward taming the stricken nuclear reactor, restoring electrical power and preparing to restart crucial systems designed to cool the dangerously overheating nuclear material. But the latest analysis of safety and maintenance practices at the plant cast new light on how the situation threatened to spiral out of control.

When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck little more than a week ago, all of the fresh fuel at the plant's Reactor No. 4 had been removed and stored in a pool that must remain filled with cooling water. That pool became one of the biggest problems for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, after much of the protective water dissipated, threatening fire and widespread radiation release.

A Journal analysis of Japanese regulatory documents shows that the Daiichi plant was already one of Japan's most troubled nuclear facilities, even before it was severely damaged by this month's quake and tsunami. In the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, the latest data available, Daiichi had the highest accident rate of any big Japanese nuclear plant, according to data collected by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, a mostly government-funded group that monitors safety and conducts inspections. Daiichi's workers were exposed to more radiation than their peers at most other plants, the data show.

Tepco says that overall it operated the Daiichi plants safely. It says the plant's age accounted for the higher rate of accidents, all of which were relatively minor until March 11.

On Sunday, Japan took major steps toward turning the tide in its battle to avoid large-scale nuclear disaster. Workers restored electrical power to parts of the plant and brought down radiation levels with a marathon water-spraying operation that, among other things, finally flooded Reactor 4's waste-fuel pool.

Key to that success: An elite disaster-response team from Tokyo, the Hyper Rescue Squad, and its massive water cannon known as the Super Pumper.

'No matter what protective gear you have on, if you touch or inhale radioactive material, that means death,' said Yukio Takayama, leader of a Hyper Rescue Squad unit, told The Wall Street Journal. 'That was on everybody's mind, and there was intense fear.'

Over the weekend, 'The most important thing we were able to do was to fill the spent-fuel pools at No. 3 and No. 4,' said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a top official at the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, which regulates Tepco.

At the time of the quake, Reactor 4 was offline and not generating power amid annual maintenance. As part of that, five months ago Tepco relocated all the fuel rods─the heavy tubes that contain radioactive fuel pellets─from inside the reactor to what's called a spent-fuel pool, a concrete holding tank that is less robustly protected than the reactor itself.

'We were carrying out checks on the inside of the reactor' and, thus, workers 'had to remove the nuclear fuel from the reactor,' said Takeshi Makigami, head of Tepco's nuclear-equipment-management section.

The active rods were in that pool when the March 11 quake struck. When the tsunami wiped out the plant's emergency generators, the water in the spent-fuel pool adjacent to the No. 4 reactor could no longer circulate, and fresh water could not be pumped in. Rods in the pools began to overheat, causing the water to evaporate as steam and exposing parts of the radioactive rods to the air─a critically dangerous situation. The heat spawned fires and the roof above the pool was partly destroyed, letting radiation out.

Over the weekend, emergency teams appear to have stabilized the situation. Still, officials cautioned they don't know if the pool has suffered cracks or other significant damage.

The events at Reactor 4 expose the risk of a commonplace practice in Japan, 'full core discharge,' in which all the fuel in a reactor is moved during maintenance shutdowns. 'The Japanese argue it's safer to move all the fuel to the pool, but the practice of full-core discharge caused a problem, in this case,' said Andy Kadak, a former professor of nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has studied fuel handling for Tepco.

Tepco's Mr. Makigami defended the practice of removing still-usable fuel and stowing it in the spent-fuel pool, saying it can be done safely if ample water is available and sufficient space is maintained between the rods.

In the U.S., reactors shut down for refueling typically retain most of their fuel in the thick steel reactor pressure vessel that provides much more protection against a radioactive release. During refueling outages, when operators swap out depleted fuel for fresh fuel and do other maintenance, these rods are shuffled around in a process somewhat akin to rotating tires on a car to even out the wear.

In the U.S., only the most worn-out rods typically are removed and transferred to a spent-fuel pool for storage, where they can stay for decades. Thus, U.S., pools hold only the oldest spent fuel, which is also the coolest in terms of temperature and radiation.

By contrast, at Tepco and other utilities, it's common to temporarily remove all the fuel rods. The freshest are eventually moved back to the reactor pressure vessel and supplemented with new rods to replace the oldest ones, which are left in the storage pools.

Rods can be left in pools for many years for two reasons. First, they need to cool down. Second, no nation has yet solved the problem of what to do with large stockpiles of used nuclear fuel. As a result, much of it remains in utility holding pens.

In the first days after the quake, officials weren't focused on the situation at Reactor No. 4, since it was one of the three reactors at the plant, along with Nos. 5 and 6, that were offline for maintenance. The more critical situation appeared to be with Reactor Nos. 1, 2 and 3, which had been online at the time of the quake. When those reactors lost power, normal cooling systems for both the reactors and the storage pools were disabled.

But by March 15, four days after the quake, problems at Unit 4 became critical with the first outbreak of fire. Tepco officials said heat produced at the pool was much greater than heat produced in the spent-fuel pools at the three reactors that automatically shut down the day of the quake.

The Journal has reported that, in the early hours of the crisis, Tepco hesitated in its decision to use seawater to cool its reactors because it worried doing so could destroy a multi-billion-dollar plant at a time when it already was short of generating capacity. Eventually, officials were forced to resort to dumping seawater on the exposed rods using helicopters and fire trucks. Temperatures also rose in the pools at Nos. 5 and 6, though Tepco got those under control without explosions or fire.

Well before the one-two punch of this month's quake and tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi ranked among Japan's most troubled nuclear plants, regulatory documents from the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization indicate.

Tepco's Mr. Makigami said 'the main reason' some numbers for the Fukushima plant look poor in the report is that 'they're old reactors.' All of Daiichi's reactors first came online in the 1970s.

Mr. Makigami said Tepco does frequent repairs, and has 'replaced the various individual parts with the latest equipment, and in so doing we aimed to give old plants the same functionality as new plants. However, in reality it is quite difficult.'

The Daiichi plant has had 15 accidents since 2005, the most of any Japanese plant with more than three reactors, according to an analysis of the data by the Journal. Maintenance problems have been a leading cause of accidents at the plants, but it isn't clear whether age has been a major factor.

In February 2009, pressure levels spiked inside Reactor 1, forcing the release of steam through an emergency valve. Workers found a broken bolt and shut down the reactor. An investigation found that a nut hadn't been tightened properly and wasn't being inspected regularly.

Some accidents involved key safety equipment. In 2007 an emergency diesel generator began smoking during testing. An investigation found that part of the generator's circuit breaker had been put together backward.

The failure of diesel generators, which power water pumps that are critical to reactor cooling systems, was a leading cause of the current crisis. But there is no evidence they were malfunctioning before the tsunami struck.

In April 2009, a control rod─the shutdown device used to stop the nuclear reaction in a plant's core─malfunctioned in Reactor No. 3 due to a leaking valve. An investigation found that the device was assembled using two different kinds of bolts, leading to the leak.

None of the Daiichi accidents were considered major safety hazards, and none caused any injuries or led to the release of any radioactive material outside the plant, until this month's accident. As is true in most nations, nuclear operators are required to report more problems to authorities than operators of conventional, fossil-fuel plants, so there is more detail on even minor occurrences.

Mr. Nishiyama, whose Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry regulates Tepco, pointed out that the company has had serious challenges, including major quakes spaced less than four years apart. He also said Tepco has 'made great progress in terms of disclosure' about their operations. He said the company is 'resilient,' but that 'once this emergency situation is over, we'll need to evaluate how Tepco is dealing with the situation.'

The Daiichi plant does expose its workers to more radiation than other plants, the regulatory documents show. Daiichi employees have received the highest average radiation doses of those at any Japanese plant every year over the past decade. Tepco's other plants also exposed their workers to higher doses of radiation than most other big Japanese operators.

Teruaki Kobayashi, head of Tepco's nuclear-plant-management section, said that since 'Fukushima Daiichi has older reactors, it requires more frequent repairs and checks than new nuclear plants.' Because the plant is of an old design, 'radiation tends to be higher.'

'When we carry out major improvements or checks, inevitably people are more likely to receive radiation,' Mr. Kobayashi said. 'That's because some tasks can only be done by human hands.'

For example, he said, when Tepco cleans the inside of the reactor, it uses specialized equipment and robots, but humans must manipulate them remotely and inevitably they get closer to radioactive material.