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Japanese Reactors


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
We just talked about Tokaimura a few days ago...

Reported by NYT, Sept. 15, 2002:

Safety Problems at Japanese Reactors

By Howard W. French

The reports of safety lapses, fraudulent repairs and cover-ups at Japan's largest nuclear power company began with a trickle but have resounded into an industry nightmare.

The details, filled in over the last two weeks by one alarming report after another, show a potentially catastrophic pattern of cost-cutting along with 16 years of cover-ups of serious flaws, apparently in an effort to preserve public trust. The pattern includes the systematic falsification of inspection and repair records at 13 reactors at the company, Tokyo Electric, the world's largest private electrical utility.

Compounding the public relations disaster, a reactor that the company operates in Fukushima Prefecture , in northern Japan, was closed temporarily last week because a chimney was emitting more than 100 times the usual level of radiation.

In accordance with the ritualized apologies that Japanese business culture demands, the president of Tokyo Electric, Nobuya Minami, and four other senior officials resigned. But many Japanese are talking about a far larger casualty, the rock-solid consensus behind nuclear energy that has existed here for decades, and which has made Japan's industry the world's third-largest, behind the United States and France, and perhaps its most ambitious.

Even senior members of the government have expressed their outrage over the scandal. "It is absolutely abominable that this incident caused the people's confidence to be largely lost in nuclear energy," said Takeo Hiranuma, the industry minister. Statements like his are almost unheard; for decades the government has been an almost unconditional backer of nuclear power.

But a groundswell has been building against nuclear power here for at least three years. It began when cost-cutting and sloppy work led to a fission chain-reaction at a uranium-processing plant in Tokaimura, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, in 1999. The anger gained momentum last year after investigators discovered that radioactive coolant water had been leaking, undetected, from cracks in the aging reactor vessel in Hamaoka for at least four months.

The Tokaimura incident was Japan's worst nuclear-related accident. Two people were killed, thousands of people were exposed to at least moderate levels of radiation and the town center had to be temporarily evacuated during a cleanup.

Company officials have said they were worried that if the public became aware of cracking at the reactors, people would be frightened. Today, it was learned that the government gave Tokyo Electric the name of the whistle-blower who reported the cracking to the company, in a further effort to keep things quiet.

The Tokaimura accident shocked the nation, and critics of the nuclear industry now say the government's condemnations of safety lapses and fraud may be too little too late.

Since Tokaimura, local communities have voted in referendums to block new plants, and in other cases mayors and governors have promised to do so. That has galvanized action against the nuclear power industry as never before.

"At first, people had no other choice but to trust the government, because this is such important technology," Eisaku Sato, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture, where some of the troubled Tokyo Electric plants are located, said Wednesday. "Then this incident occurred, and the trust between us, which was never more than a thin red thread, was completely cut off."

Just one day earlier, Masazumi Nishikawa, the mayor of Kashiwazaki City, in Niigata Prefecture, told Tokyo Electric to cancel its plans to introduce a plutonium fuel into a conventional local reactor which was designed to burn uranium. The prefectural governor, Ikuo Hirayama, has seconded the mayor's moves.

Antinuclear activists say they can now foresee a day when Japan joins countries like Germany and Belgium in banning new nuclear plant construction. Plant construction in the United States has long been frozen though not banned.

"This kind of scandal, where there have been cover-ups for 10 years, causes a fatal doubt of government policy on nuclear energy," said Kiyoshi Sakurai, an industry critic and a physicist. "We will end up like Americans and some European countries, turning away from nuclear energy."

Nuclear-generated electricity has been the bedrock of Japan's energy policy since the oil shocks of the 1970's, which hit Japan far worse than the United States, considering that Japan was a manufacturing economy without local supplies of oil.

The country embarked on a crash program to build dozens of nuclear power plants. But it also poured tens of billions of dollars into the development of plutonium-burning reactors, known as fast breeder reactors; their technology, though unproven, theoretically would produce more nuclear fuel than they burn.

The United States abandoned similar plans during the Ford administration, citing safety concerns, and since then, international nuclear energy experts and antinuclear activists in Japan have raised a host of other objections, from infeasibility to the terror-related risks of shipping vast stocks of plutonium internationally and around Japan.

But the Japanese government has continued to spend heavily on developing plutonium-based reactors, even despite a sodium leak and a fire at its prototype fast-breeder reactor at Monju in 1992.

"There is a single-minded commitment to nuclear power," said Edwin Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, an independent group in Washington doing research on nuclear nonproliferation. "The government clearly sees promoting nuclear power as its policy, because the bureaucrats absolutely believe that this is the key to their energy future for the next 200 years."

The biggest liabilities faced by Japan's huge nuclear power industry are not the technologies of the future, but an accident-plagued present in which embarrassing failures in aging reactors have become disturbingly commonplace.

The most frightening revelation in the unfolding Tokyo Power scandal has been that falsified inspection records had papered over large cracks in the stainless steel shrouds that cover the core of nuclear plants, allowing the reactors to operate for years without costly repairs.

For many, this recalled an explosion at a nuclear plant operated by the Nagoya-based Chubu Electric Power Company, at Hamaoka, last November. The investigation there revealed the radioactive leaks.

The Hamaoka plant began operating in 1976, and antinuclear activists in Japan have seized upon incidents like the one last year as evidence that many of Japan's 53 nuclear reactors, operating well into their third decade, are aging and a safety risk.

Aging has emerged as a major concern in the United States, too, particularly since the discovery in March of a hole in the top of the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse reactor, near Toledo, Ohio. Unforeseen corrosion by boric acid has nearly eaten through the six-inch thick steel vessel that contains the reactor's core, and American investigators are also looking into whether inspection or repair records at the plant have been falsified.

In an interview before the Tokyo Power scandals, Shojiro Masuura, chairman of Japans Nuclear Safety Commission, denied that aging of nuclear plants was a problem. "In Japan there is no relationship between accidents and aging," he said. Regarding the Hamaoka leaks, he added, "the reactors fractures don't really relate to aging at all."

American nuclear energy experts have expressed astonishment at that line of thinking. "Something has happened to the Japanese, and it doesn't look good," said Victor Galinsky, a former member of the Nuclear Regulator Commission. "I just can't imagine that any engineer, technical person or technical bureaucrat can deny that aging is a problem."

Copyright © New York Times
oh hum, nothing new. We hear about the screw ups on TV every month.

Take a look at the timing of building and the bubble economy. Fast paced economic growth and lot's of money being created.

Japanese real estate agents will be the first to tell you that corners are cut when ever possible.

So, why not on nuclear plants too. No big deal. Make lots of money then when your company goes bankrupt or disappears you no longer have any responsibility for what work you did.

Port Pia Land in Kobe was similar. So, during the Hanshin earthquake that whol amusement area had major problems. The company took out insurance rahter than build earthquake proof areas ;)

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