15 November 2007

Public versus official views of nuclear incidents: Japan

JAPAN: Nuclear radiation/"accidents" update

N-safety reports inadequate / Gap between public, official views of incidents must be addressed

Tuesday's release of a study downplaying any danger from the nuclear accident at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in Niigata Prefecture following the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake suggests there is a gap between public and official views of the incident.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry report officially categorized the risk as "level 0 minus"--the lowest level on the International Atomic Energy Agency's International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

I will never forget the TV images of black smoke billowing from an electric transformer situated next to the plant's No. 3 reactor building immediately after the earthquake hit the area on July 16. No matter how long I sat and watched the TV images, it seemed that no one was trying extinguish the fire--something that naturally made me and anybody who saw those images feel anxious.

That afternoon, the power station operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said there had been no release of radioactivity following the earthquake. Later that night, however, TEPCO announced that water containing a small amount of radioactive material had leaked into the sea from spent-fuel storage pools in the No. 6 reactor building.

At midnight, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari ordered TEPCO President Tsunehisa Katsumata to explain the situation. The minister also reprimanded Katsumata over the company's failure to swiftly extinguish the fire, as well as its delay in reporting the leakage of radioactive water.

Various media, including The Yomiuri Shimbun, provided detailed reports on the situation at the nuclear power plant over the days that followed.

Despite the leak of radioactive water, the incident was given the lowest ranking on the INES scale. Nearly 3,000 other problems, such as the fire in the electric transformer, are not subject to categorization using the scale, according to the study.

No doubt many people feel uneasy about these results. What should we make of the gap between the official results and the way we feel about the incident?

Haruki Madarame, a professor at Tokyo University and chairman of the agency's INES Evaluation Subcommittee, said:

"The INES scale is solely concerned with nuclear-related incidents, not with disasters caused by things like earthquakes. If there was no release of radioactive material from the nuclear facilities, then the incident will automatically get a low ranking on the INES scale."

Accidents and problems at nuclear power facilities tend to be very technical and complicated, making it hard for ordinary people to understand.

Introduced in 1992 by the IAEA and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, INES aims at providing a simplified indicator to help ordinary people understand the relative seriousness of an accident or a problem. In other words, the scale ranks incidents according to the radiation hazard they pose.

As in the incident following the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake, therefore, problems that do not involve serious damage to a nuclear reactor are not subject to ranking on the scale, creating a gap between the result and public perception.

There have been other cases in which public feeling about an incident did not correspond to the INES evaluation, including a 2004 accident at Mihama nuclear power station's No. 3 reactor in Mihamacho, Fukui Prefecture, in which five people were killed by a steam pipe blowout, and a sodium leak accident at the Monju fast breeder reactor of the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (Donen) in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, in 1995.

Both were categorized as "level 1" incidents, described as operations constituting an "anomaly beyond the authorized operating regime."

The 1999 death of two employees at JCO Co. due to exposure to a massive dose of radiation at the nuclear fuel-reprocessing plant in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, was evaluated as "level 4"--officially categorized as an "accident without significant off-site risk."

A fire and explosion at Donen's nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Tokaimura in 1997 was categorized as "level 3," or a "serious incident."

Those two events give the impression that the 2004 Mihama accident and the 1995 Monju case were considered less serious. This is due to the fact that the Mihama and Monju events did not involve any release of radioactivity.

It cannot be said with certainty that the incident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on July 16 was a significant nuclear accident. However, it is not surprising that the media made a big fuss over it, given that it involved a nuclear power plant suffering unexpected damage from an earthquake, and about 3,000 subsequent problems.

Even though the incident was given a low INES ranking, never before has any nuclear power plant been hit by such a massive quake. The government and electric power companies should show that they are not overreliant on the INES scale, and get to work on ways to prevent a recurrence of such problems--perhaps to include a reexamination of the scale for reactors in earthquake-prone areas.

(Nov. 16, 2007)

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One of the lesser-known casualties of the deadly July 16 quake that struck Niigata Prefecture was a headstone that toppled in a village a few miles from the epicenter off Kashiwazaki. The grave bore the name of legendary former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, Japan’s postwar master of pork-barrel politics and the man who helped bring the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant to this deprived area on the Sea of Japan coast.

Tombstones toppled in Niigata by the July 16 quake

Tanaka’s pitch was energy self-sufficiency in a country famously dependent on fuel imports, nearly all of it from the volatile Middle-East. But as its hosts now know, Tanaka’s dream required building the planet’s largest nuclear power complex directly over an active earthquake fault. Today, the plant squats on the outskirts of this town of 93,000, a seven-reactor, 8200-megawatt monster, surrounded by cracked and buckled roads and local people who wonder anew if they are safe living in its shadow.

Comprehensive view of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant

Inside, in the seconds after the 6.8 quake (now officially known as Chuetsu-oki) struck just twelve miles away, pipes burst, drums of nuclear waste toppled and monitors stopped working. A fire in an electrical transformer burned unattended for over two hours and 1,200 liters of contaminated water sloshed into the sea. Ten days later, Tokyo Electric Co. (Tepco), the utility giant that runs the plant, admitted that the damage “extended to the interior of the reactor building” and, at the end of July, that a small amount of radioactive water had also escaped from the No.1 reactor.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant entrance days after the earthquake

When Tepco President Katsumata Tsunehisa, who heads Japan’s largest electric power company and the largest privately owned electric utility in the world, surveyed the site in the aftermath of the quake, he reportedly called it “a mess.”

But the full dimensions of the problem would continue to leak to the public over the coming weeks. Not until July 30 did Tepco acknowledge that the July 16 quake had caused the Power Plant to sway a maximum 2,058 gals. A gal is a unit of acceleration equal to 1 centimeter per 1 second squared.

It was, the utility reported, not only the strongest sway recorded at a nuclear power plant in Japan, but might be the most powerful at any nuclear plant in the world.

In at least one area of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the shaking was 6.8 times larger than the maximum level taken into account when the plant was designed. Following the quake, Tepco had announced that the maximum shaking recorded at the plant was 680 gals on the lowest basement floor of the No. 1 reactor.

Tepco Shinsaiwaibashi Building

The problems at the complex quickly overtook media coverage of the wider and tragic destruction caused by the quake: eleven dead, over a thousand injured and an estimated 1.5 trillion yen in damage. At a time when some governments are rethinking a freeze on nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-based energy, Japan was something of an anomaly: an advanced country that had continued building plants despite the twin nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). The country was now “paying a price” for that commitment, according to the LA Times, one of many foreign news outlets that felt compelled to comment on the disaster.

Such coverage elicited a testy press release from Japan’s Foreign Office on July 27, which blamed foreign news organizations for “inappropriate or inaccurate” reports on the quake. Like Tepco, the Foreign Office insists that the reactors worked as designed, automatically shutting down as the quake struck and releasing an “insignificant” amount of radiation “substantially lower than the standards under law.” The world awaits confirmation of these claims, but they follow a history of dissembling and cover-ups concerning nuclear power that critics say continues in Niigata. On July 23, a delegation of Social Democratic Party members led by Hosaka Nobuhiko was refused entry to several key areas of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex, including reactor buildings 5 and 7, by Tepco managers. A report written afterward by lawyer Ito Yoshinori called the extensive damage around the plant “alarming.”

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa’s seven reactors are now idle, threatening power shortages throughout the peak energy-demand summer months and forcing Trade Minister Amari Akira to request that business users cut electricity consumption. Kashiwazaki Mayor Aida Hiroshi invoked a little-used emergency order to shut down the reactors because he considered them “a threat to the safety of the public.” According to the Nikkei business newspaper, the plant, which generates enough power to supply 16 million households, is likely to be closed for up to a year.

Locals say that after he read the riot act to Tepco’s managers, Mayor Aida sent cars equipped with loudspeakers around the town to reassure his constituents he had been “tough” with the company. Some said he wasn’t tough enough. “
I wish the plant wasn’t here,” lamented resident Yamada Koji. “But now that it is we have to live with it and hope the government keeps us safe.”
That’s far from a unanimous view: Igarashi Mitsuo who lives in a hamlet right beside the stricken nuclear giant said:
“I don’t like it but as long as it stays safe, I think it is better that we have it.”

Locals have argued about the plant’s merits since it was announced amid a blaze of publicity and national pride in 1969. Later, the central government forcibly bought up the land and surrounding seas, according to local anti-nuclear activist Takemoto Kazuyuki. “The slogan was: ‘Nuclear power is a state policy, so you should be cooperative,’” he wrote in a 2002 petition to have the plant closed. Takemoto first petitioned to close the complex in 1974; demonstrations, petitions and court-cases were a regular feature of life here as the reactors went online between 1985 and 1997.

Since 2001, the site has been constantly monitored by police helicopters and coastguard ships permanently anchored offshore, the same year a public referendum narrowly (53 percent) voted to reject the use of MOX fuel, which combines plutonium and natural uranium oxides, in the reactors. Today, the most common local reaction to questions about the power station is shikata-ga-nai: It can’t be helped.
“Most people who live here keep a wary eye on the plant the way they would a dangerous neighbor,” says Briton Paul Woodcock, who teaches in the town. “They just hope it stays calm.”
Over the years, a total of $2 billion dollars (2,500 oku) in government subsidies has been pumped into Kashiwazaki, estimates Mayor Aida, and hundreds of local people now work at the complex; a quarter of households in Kariwa (a village of 5,000 people) are dependent on its salaries.
“The plant contributes a lot to the area but we only want it here if Tepco can guarantee the safety of the people here,” says Aida in an office on the top of the city’s administration building visibly scared by the quake. “We must be assured of this before it is reopened.”

Privately, the mayor is said to be furious at Tepco. Japan’s biggest power company initially failed to report the leak, then admitted that it was 50 percent bigger than previously announced. According to the Asahi, journalists who visited the reactor building on July 25 found workers mopping up radioactive water with paper towels. Earlier this year Tepco admitted falsifying inspection data 200 times at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and other reactors going back decades. After the quake, it emerged that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had warned the plant managers two years ago that their fire-prevention measures were inadequate.

Trade Minister Amari warned that such scandals “could make people lose their trust in nuclear power” and ordered the country’s top nuclear power companies to tighten up plant operations. His concern is understandable. Japan has 55 of the world’s 440-odd operating reactors, supplying about one-third of the country’s demand for electricity, and another 11 in construction or planned. The government’s national energy policy aims to bury the “Hiroshima Syndrome” and raise the proportion of nuclear-generated electricity to 40 percent. Japan aims, in the words of Gavan McCormack, author of Client State: Japan in the American Embrace, to become “a nuclear superstate.” [See BELOW!!]

That puts the world’s second-largest economy out of step with much of the developed world. The contribution of nuclear power to global energy demand fell by one percent to 16 percent in the decade to 2003, and the scheduled closing of many older plants in Europe and the US is likely to reduce that level in coming years. While the US, Britain and much of Europe essentially froze their nuclear programs in recent years, resource-poor Japan continued building in the pursuit of energy self-sufficiency. One of the byproducts of this policy is an enormous and growing stock of plutonium – 45 tonnes, or enough to build thousands of the bombs that leveled Nagasaki in 1945. “It is astonishing that even after Chernobyl, Japan has built more than 20 new reactors,” says Murata Mitsuhei, former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland and now an antinuclear campaigner.

Murata says he and his network have collected 900,000 signatures demanding that all Japanese nuclear plants built on active faults be shut down.

Murata and leading seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko, who coined the phrase genpaku shinsai (roughly meaning a nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake), warn that the nuclear technocrats are dangerously delusional about their ability to predict the impact of quakes on Japan’s 55 reactors.
“The people in charge say the faults (under the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant) were unexpected, but they had actually been predicted,”
says Ishibashi, who warns that the ability to forecast where quakes will hit is in any case limited.
“Even in areas with no detected faults, M7-class destructive earthquakes can happen.”
Ishibashi recently resigned from a subcommittee of the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission, set up to revise Japanese nuclear plant seismic standards, because
he “didn’t think the new standards were sufficient.”
Japan’s nuclear plants are designed to withstand M6.5-quakes, but the construction regulations are a quarter of a century old and new rules issued last year recommended an upgrade, widely and erroneously reported as 6.8, according to Ishibashi.
“The new guidelines are vague…and should be reviewed again. If we don’t make fundamental improvements to nuclear plant earthquake design, Japan will suffer a catastrophic genpaku shinsai.”
The most likely venue for such a disaster, he contends, is the aging, five-reactor Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, 190 km southwest of Tokyo. Seismologists suggest an 87-percent probability of a magnitude-8 quake striking under or near the Chubu Electric Power Co. plant in the next 30 years. Doomsday scenarios predict clouds of radioactive dust from the plant descending on the world’s most crowded metropolis within six hours of the quake. “Thirty million people would have to be evacuated from the city,” says Ishibashi. “We could never live there again.”

Despite such chilling warnings, there is little evidence that the Niigata quake has shaken government confidence in its nuclear program and, as the Foreign Office statement suggests, may have even reinforced it. “We believe,” said the statement, that a joint IAEA investigation “will not only confirm the current safety of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant…but also further contribute to the transparency in Japan’s Nuclear Energy, and help promote to share lessons leaned from the earthquake internationally” (sic). Many wonder, however, whether the pursuit of transparency and safety will survive the enormous costs generated. “The logic of nuclear power is that the companies want to reduce the costs of earthquake-resistant design as much as possible,” says Kyoto University’s Imanaka Tetsuji. “That leaves a lot of room for underestimating the risks.” Ban Hideaki, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, put this more bluntly.
“The target is money rather than safety” he told the Asia Times.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has already ordered an investigation into the Niigata disaster, citing “concern at the delayed reaction to the accident by the operators of the plant.” The result could be a demand that up to half of Japan’s nuclear complexes be refitted. Several plants, including the Onagawa facility in Miyagi Prefecture and the Shika plant in Ishikawa Prefecture have recently been rattled by much stronger quakes than they were built to withstand, and suggest that a quake resistance of at least 7.0 will have to be the new standard, a deceptively small change that could carry a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars. The new regulations may demand that geologists identify quake faults active up to 130,000 years ago, a reaction to the stunning revelation that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant sat atop an active fault. In the meantime, Takemoto and his anti-nuclear colleagues wait for the results of a lawsuit (now in the Supreme Court) demanding that the government revoke Tepco’s operating license for the plant. “We predicted the earthquake and Tepco did not,” says Takemoto. “The company does not have the right to operate.”

Japan’s nuclear issues are not contained within its borders and indeed the reverberations of the July 16 quake are already being felt around the world: The Niigata plant shutdown is likely to undermine the country’s commitments to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which require a six-percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2012, based on an operational rate for its nuclear plants above 85 percent. Tokyo is planning to offer support and technological assistance to other fast-growing Asian nations that want to develop their own nuclear programs. Murata believes the Niigata quake should be the beginning of the end for Japan’s entire nuclear program. “To me it is a moral and ethical question. How can we keep building these plants when we don’t know how to dispose of the waste they generate or if they will survive an earthquake?”

See also:

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Japan as a Nuclear State

Gavan McCormack

The following text appears as chapter 8 in the just published book Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (New York and London, Verso), and is reproduced here by kind permission of the publishers.

Client State: Japan in the American Embrace

The nuclear question in relation to Japan is commonly understood in the narrow sense of whether Japan might one day opt to produce its own nuclear weapons, but I argue for a much broader construction. Japan is simultaneously unique nuclear victim country and one of the world’s most nuclear committed countries. Protected and privileged within the American embrace, it has evolved into a nuclear-cycle country and plutonium super-power.

The US nuclear embrace of Japan continues to evolve. Since the chapter was written, the implications of the Bush administration’s decision to promote the worldwide expansion of nuclear power generation and reprocessing, under a global-dominating cartel to be known as “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership” (GNEP), thus reversing thirty years of policy, have become gradually apparent. The US’s willing “follower” states (UK, Japan, Australia) have been uniformly enthusiastic, and the civil nuclear industry seems intent on exploiting the sense of global environmental and energy crisis to promote the nuclear option as green and safe, promising a global nuclear renaissance. Under the GNEP, the world would be divided between “our” states, that will be trusted with weapons (Pakistan, India, Israel, etc) and reprocessing technologies (Japan, and if Australian Prime Minister John Howard can have his way, Australia), and those beyond the pale (at present, most prominently, North Korea and Iran). In the most recent study of the implications, the Oxford Group points out that for a global civil nuclear energy program to have a significant impact, by doubling the nuclear contribution to the global energy grid, bringing it to about one-third of the total, a new reactor would have to be built each week from now to 2075. (Frank Barnaby and James Kemp, “Too Hot to Handle: The Future of Civil Nuclear Power,” Briefing Paper, Oxford Research group, July 2007.

The choice of plutonium as the material on which to rest the global economy threatens both the world’s security and its environment, and the fast breeder technology on which the GNEP would rest has yet to be developed.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant hit by the earthquake
in July 2007 was directly on a previously undetected
fault line.

On 16 July 2007, following an earthquake that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, the world’s largest nuclear plant (seven reactors with total generating capacity of 8,000 megawatts), at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Niigata prefecture, had to be shut down indefinitely. Fifty cases of malfunctioning and other “trouble,” including burst pipes, a fire, radioactive leakages into the atmosphere and into the Sea of Japan, and the toppling of hundreds of drums of low-level radioactive wastes, were reported. The plant’s operators (Tokyo Electric Power Company) admitted that the quake had been more than twice as strong as the design had allowed for, and that it had been built directly atop a fault line that they had not detected. Immediate catastrophe was avoided, but 16 July held an ominous message. The government’s guarantees of the safety of existing plants, and its assurances of the reliability of its nuclear-centred energy policy, rang hollow.

If the country with the world’s most advanced

scientific and engineering skills could make such

disastrous nuclear miscalculations, could the rest of

the world do better?

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