Saturday, August 21, 2004

Negligence probably killed the four workers at Mihama nuclear plant

I don't see what other conclusion can be drawn from this Japan Times article:

Faulty pipes caused nine other reactor accidents

Nine accidents similar to the steam pipe rupture that killed four workers at a nuclear power plant last week have occurred at other reactors, a safety panel revealed Thursday.
According to the nuclear safety agency, there have been nine incidents at nuclear reactors involving pipes eroded by coolant water, just as in the Mihama accident. It reported there were another seven pipe accidents at thermal reactors.

In the Mihama accident, the faulty pipe section, which had not been inspected since the reactor started up in 1976, had worn as thin as 0.6 mm.

It was also reported that pipes had not been properly inspected at 17 areas in six of Kepco's nuclear reactors.

As well as the four workers who were killed, seven were injured, some seriously, by the steam, which was at 142 degrees Celsius. At this temperature, death results from suffocation, caused by damage to the respiratory system, as much as from external burns.
As a further indication that this accident was predictable, the most serious previous incident involving steam leakage in the nuclear industry also involved a burst pipe. This incident, which happened in 1986 at the Surry Nuclear Power Plant in the state of Virginia in the US also killed four people.
There's a report on the incident on the day it happened here.
and an editorial from The Asahi Shimbun on the following day, here.

Today, Al Jazeera reports that "The Atomic Energy Commission of Japan has admitted that the 9 August fatal accident at the Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui, central Japan, may force a rethink of the government's commitment to atomic power."

I doubt it. Japan has the third-largest nuclear industry in the world, after the USA and France, with 52 nuclear reactors that generate 45,740 megawatts of electricity. It has two strategic reasons for keeping it that way. First, it has almost no fossil fuel reserves and depends hugely on oil from West Asia, access to which can be controlled by the US, and in the future, perhaps by China. This has been acknowledged since the Mihama deaths by Osamu Goto, director of planning at the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan: "Japan has very few resources, with all the oil that we need, for example, imported from the Middle East or other sources. Nuclear energy is a very good choice for us as it has many benefits and is important to our energy security."   Secondly, as mentioned previously on this blog, Japan's civil nuclear programme is designed to produce the expertise and fissile materials necessary to produce nuclear weapons at a few months notice. Kepco (the Kansai Electric Power Company), which runs the plant at Mihama has been pushing to use MOX (mixed plutonium uranium oxide) fuel, which as the Al Jazeera article notes, "will lead to the commercialisation of tonnes of weapons-grade nuclear fuel."
In the circumstances, rumours of a rethink are simply a way of appeasing public outrage. Unless that outrage is focussed through sustained campaigning, Japan will stay nuclear for the forseeable future. There are people who are working very hard at this, including Greenpeace Japan. Their nuclear expert Kazue Suzuki said:
"Kepco has been planning to put plutonium into its reactors, even though that has met some opposition from local people. After this latest incident, that opposition is certain to be stronger. People just don't trust nuclear power."
The Al Jazeera article ends with comment from Green Action in Japan:
"It is too early to know for sure, but we suspect the official report into the Mihama incident will be a whitewash because they are just looking at old, inadequate data," said Aileen Mioko Smith, of the Kyoto-based Green Action environmental group.

"We say they should shut all their plants down to conduct checks now; if they're not willing to do that, then already it's a whitewash," she said.

Representatives of Green Action held three hours of talks with senior officials of Kepco on 11 August, with Smith saying that while the company has been very quick to apologise to the families of the dead and injured, management has been equally speedy about trying to avoid legal responsibility.

Kepco's top echelons are "fleeing their responsibility" by saying that managers of individual plants should be held accountable for any mishaps, Smith said.

"We hope that this accident will have a trickle-down effect on the Japanese public, when they see the relatives of the dead crying and hitting out at the head of Kepco," she said.

"But we fear it will have a very minor impact on the government's nuclear power policy.

"There will be a big upheaval now, but then it will quickly go back to business as usual," she added.

"In Japan, there is a very big gap between what the public wants and feels comfortable with, and the need to have power and feed industry and the domestic market."

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