Friday, August 13, 2004

Safety First, Or Under-Reaction at the Reactor

More from TIA's foreign correspondent in Japan, Mr. Alexander St. John:

On August 9, 1945, Japan’s city of Nagasaki was devastated by a nuclear weapon. Japan renounced the development of nuclear weapons, a pledge it restates annually, most symbolically at a ceremony held at the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Domu) in Hiroshima (the first Japanese city to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon) to commemorate those hundreds of thousands citizens who were killed there 59 years ago. Japan, however, did not renounce the use of nuclear power as an energy source. Today, 25% of Japan’s electricity needs are met by nuclear energy (with plans in place to boost the percentage to 40%). Japan’s nuclear power industry ranks third globally, behind the United States and France.

It is with some sense of irony then, that 59 years to the day on which Nagasaki was destroyed by an atomic bomb, Japan suffered its most recent major blow to public confidence in the safety of its nuclear industry. The facts pertaining to August 9, 2004 are relatively simple, but their implications are disturbing. A steam pipe at the Kansai Electric Power Company’s (KEPCO) nuclear reactor in Mihama (300 km west of Tokyo) burst exposing eleven employees to scalding and highly-pressurized 300 degree steam, killing four men instantly and hospitalizing the remaining seven. No nuclear contamination occurred on this occasion, but naturally it brings to bear the possibility of a disturbing 'what if.' Events have progressed, as they so often do in Japan, with the rounds of apologies, acceptance of responsibility, and promises to detail all of the facts and bolster safety.

As widely reported, a section of carbon steel pipe had not been inspected in – pause for emphasis – twenty-eight years allowing the wall of the pipe to corrode to a thickness no greater than metal foil. Sadly, the possibility of this problem had been brought to the attention of KEPCO by a subcontractor almost a year and a half ago (April 2003), and KEPCO had planned for an ultrasound inspection to take place a few days after the accident occurred. In fact, the subcontractor stated it was moving materiel into the reactor facility for the shutdown that was to take place on August 14, 2004, which was the reason the facility was crawling with so many people on August 9. Kyodo News has suggested that this was itself a violation of the reactor’s safety procedures.

In a country that prides itself in emphasizing "safety first," it is disconcerting to hear of the apparent lack of safety in what amounts to arguably the most dangerous industry of all. Quoting "sources," Japan Today reported on August 11 that, in compliance with the reactor's safety manual, more than ten minutes were spent confirming the source of the accident (in spite of the obviousness of the steam-filled room) before placing a phone call to the fire department. The manual-writers’ logic being, hey, we’re only a nuclear reactor, and if it’s a pesky fire or containment breach with – as an extreme – Chernoby-like repercussions, better to confirm it first before troubling the authorities empowered with a mandate of public protection, right?

Le Figaro pointed out that the incident at Mihama was only the latest in a series of accidents at Japan’s nuclear facilities, the first dating back to September 1999, when 600 people where exposed to radiation at a uranium treatment plant in Tokaimura. Two employees were killed in that event. In 2000, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the world’s largest energy company, admitted that it falsified inspection reports regarding radiation leak rates at certain of its nuclear reactors. Last year, TEPCO was forced to close seventeen of its reactors while carrying out inspections. In the case of this most recent safety incident at Mihama, the plant itself was closed in November 2002 after water escaped (radioactive in that case), but fortunately resulted in neither injuries nor emissions into the environment.

In an interesting bout of double speak, leading conservative Japanese daily Yomiuri Shinbun warned: "Care must be taken not to overemphasize the dangers involved in the operation of nuclear power stations, which could lead to an overreaction" (New York Times translation). However, its hard not to overreact when one imagines the effects radiation exposure would have in as densely a populated country as Japan. It is a disturbing image.

What’s also frightening, is to think what the manual says, or doesn’t say, should happen in such an event. Or worse, if the manual doesn’t cover events that might have been outside the scope of its drafters’ imaginations! One is certainly not convinced that employees’ reaction times would be adequate or timely when KEPCO has a manual that imposes internal hurdles limiting the potential response times of the nation’s safety resources, when time is truly of the essence in the context of nuclear reactors. At a time when emphasis is being placed on the threat of terrorists infiltrating nuclear reactors and reaping all sorts of death and destruction, it would seem that greater emphasis should be placed on those responsible for the basic safety inspections of nuclear reactors. If a country that is so "safe" is having such a variety of problems with its nuclear safety, what of those reactors in the United States and France? For my money, it’s the non-adherence to basic safety precautions and common sense that appears to be where the greatest risk of danger lies.

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