August 30, 2007

Japan: security in nuclear power plants

On 16 July, the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant shut down after being damaged by an earthquake that left nine dead in Japan. Although the damage may not have seemed very alarming, the quake hit the 6.8 mark on the Richter scale, causing nearly 1,000 victims and the loss of 1.5 gallons of radioactive liquid. Premier Shinzo Abe immediately interrupted ongoing campaigns for the election on 29 July to ensure the rescue and protection of civilians, with 450 soldiers and 120 transport means made available for rescuing the survivors.Apart from leaving a strong impact on the country's economy, the earthquake brought attention to the country's nuclear safety and government regulations in the sector.
Luca Battiato (30 August 2007)

The Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant and the security programme

According to statements by Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the nuclear power reactors in Kashiwazaki were shut down automatically after the catastrophe – the first one near Niigata, and the second one along the Sea of Japan in Kyoto. The company confirmed that the incident will not have serious repercussions on the surrounding people or the environment, although, in reality, statistics concerning the plant's security are not the least comforting.First of all lies the fact that the whole structure at Kashiwazaki, the largest in the world, was projected to sustain earthquakes measured at no more than 6.5 on the scale. Secondly, the number of malfunctions and problems found was much greater than the information released by Tepco, having reached a total of 50: the Agency for Nuclear and Industrial Safety noted that exhaust pipes in five of the seven reactors were found out of place and may provoke dangerous consequences. Furthermore, 100 barrels containing nuclear waste released radioactive material into the atmosphere, such as cobalt-60 and chromium-51. Whilst Tepco registered a loss of 1.5 gallons of radioactive liquid after the earthquake, the next day it was found that liquid in the surrounding waters amounted to 50 times the radioactivity previously announced. The incident triggered strong tensions between Kashiwazaki mayor Hiroshi Aida and Tepco over the lack of information released by the company after the occurrence.One Tepco spokesperson confirmed: “we did not consider the possibility of such a strong earthquake when making plans for the plant. If we look at the areas hit by the earthquake, we can see there was a fault right under the structure”.

As such, the level of Japanese security in the nuclear field is fain reassuring. In 1999, hundreds of people were exposed to radiation coming from a central plant in Tokaimura, of which two died in the end. Another incident took place in the Mihama complex, belonging to Kansai Electric Company (Kepco), on August 2004, when several broken pipes led to the death of four workers, whilst seven others were left badly burnt. Yet, the Japanese have been hit by still more incidents of the sort: 17 reactors were shut for the year, following the discovery of falsified handbooks detailing plant safety standards in 2002. As regards the last earthquake, the Nuclear Safety Commission criticised Tepco over the lack of on-site vehicles for fire emergencies, and for the fact that firemen had been taking too long to answer their calls (on average 90 minutes).Five days after the fire, Commission head Shiozaki demanded the operators of the 55 nuclear reactors in Japan to step up anti-earthquake controls and to consider new security measures.
Power vs. security?

Japan's energy policy is closely linked to minimising the country's strong reliance on imports, currently responsible for 80% of energy demand.As for nuclear worries (30% of energy demand in the country), policies are directed towards a number of goals: determining nuclear energy as the country's main source of energy in the future; recycling uranium and plutonium from used fuels; developing self-fertilisers with the scope of improving the use of uranium, as well as promoting nuclear energy to the public and focusing on increasing nuclear safety.

In July 2001, the Japanese government signed a nuclear energy deal through the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) towards increasing nuclear energy production by 30%, thanks to the construction of five new plants by 2011.The need to produce energy internally goes hand in hand with the country's efforts in reducing harmful gas emissions and reaching the objectives set out by the Kyoto Protocol. In 2005, the Atomic Energy Commission emphasised the use of light water reactors (LWRs) for replacing some of the current plants, whilst self-fertilising reactors shall be purchased though not introduced until 2050. In 2006, the Liberal Democratic party in government stressed the need to develop the reactors as an essential tool for the country's technology. Part of the government budget was directed towards R&D into testing and implementation of international agreements for establishing sodium-cooled reactors.

In April of this year, the government chose Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) as the main company for developing ‘self-fertilising’ reactors, a proposal supported also by the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and by the Federation of Electric Companies of Japan. One of the main goals is to make Mitsubishi a leading producer of the reactors on an international level, thanks to the agencies' support and consent.

Nevertheless, the country's support for nuclear energy as its principal source of energy must be backed by a solid security plan in order to face risky events such as July's earthquake in the Kashiwazaki plant. Above all, the plan must support Japanese industry and insurances, both severely hit after the incident.

The Nikkei Stock index went down 0.1% the Monday after the earthquake, whilst Topix went down 0.3%.Insurance company Mitsui Sumitomo went down 2.1% and Sompo Japan Insurance 2.3%. Following the earthquake, Tepco registered a fall of 1.1%. In parallel, companies like Riken corporation and Sanyo Electric went down by 4.1% and 0.5%, respectively.In spite of such episodes, the Japanese government has not backed away from using nuclear energy in agreements with electric companies. The agreements will have an essential role in containing global warming, especially if considered that energy demand is to go up by 50% as a result of industrialisation and population growth.

On the other hand, there is a strong opposition already in place, including activists, organisations, and research centres, such as the “Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center”, motivated by scarce planning capabilities, transparency, and lack of information (which is, furthermore, often contradictory) from the government, regarding the nuclear industry. In addition, the future costs that earthquakes may cause for the environment and industries have led nuclear safety specialists to consider water-powered energy as a possible pathway for Japan's energy demand, thanks to the country's numerous rivers and mountain chains. As for the nuclear sector, there have yet to be established safer procedures for the functioning of the plants, as they are increasingly put at risk given the land's fertile ground for seismic activity.

The future of nuclear policy will be dictated by how the government responds to security needs that have been laid bare by the recent earthquake. On the one hand, the government has carried out a policy that considers nuclear development as a “clean” process, one that is likely to render Japan independent of imports as billion-dollar agreements are made with electric companies. On the other hand, the network lacks a great deal of planning in order to make it a safe and smooth process in the future. Japan has been pushing ahead with policies aimed at enhancing the country's power in the field, all the whilst lacking a base for monitoring the process. The government's blunders in managing information transparently have, moreover, proved such arguments right. Therefore, if the question of power is not backed by security concerns, the “faults” dividing Japan shall be a growing burden in the future.

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