What a failed nuclear industry looks like

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

LAST week we took a look at the dire straits of the nuclear power sector in France, the world’s biggest user of commercial nuclear energy. Even though it is in a crisis – the government-owned electric utility EDF is technically bankrupt, being at least 37 billion euros in debt – the nuclear power sector in France has not yet completely failed. The same may not be said for the world’s other example of nuclear energy “success,” Japan.

Prior to the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Japan derived about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Being relatively resource-poor, Japan has regarded nuclear power as a strategic necessity since the industry was first hatched in 1954 (Japan’s first commercial reactor became operational in 1966); the pre-Fukushima plan was to increase the share of nuclear power in the country’s generation mix to at least 40 percent.

The Fukushima disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, changed all that. Three of the six reactors at the plant were destroyed after their cooling systems were knocked out by the tsunami that followed the magnitude-9.0 offshore earthquake. 140,000 people within 20 kilometers of the plant were evacuated, and most have not yet returned to their homes. The accident did not, as far as is known, cause any direct radiation deaths away from the plant site, but six workers were killed as a result of accidents or in one case, a heart attack, in the days after the disaster as they struggled to contain the disaster.

Earlier this month, the Japanese government revised its estimates for cleaning up the Fukushima mess, from 11 trillion yen to 21.5 trillion yen ($188 billion). The estimate for decommissioning the reactors was increased by a factor of four to 8 trillion yen, while compensation payments are now expected to reach 7.9 trillion yen.

As a result of the disaster, Japan shut down all 54 of its operating reactors; as of now, only two have been restarted on a limited basis, and have been frequently taken off-line for maintenance and other concerns.

Japanese public opinion, supportive of nuclear power for decades, has decidedly turned against it since the disaster, which was revealed to have been aggravated by poor design and engineering corner-cutting by the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

Critics of the nuclear power sector in Japan have said a large-scale disaster like Fukushima, especially given Japan’s active seismicity, was just a matter of time. Japan’s nuclear industry is divided into nine regions, with each controlled by an operator that holds an absolute monopoly; this has led to a cozy relationship with regulators, and as a consequence, has resulted in a number of embarrassing, costly, and sometimes deadly incidents and scandals over the years:

In 1978, Tepco almost lost one of its reactors when control rods were dislodged; the accident was not revealed until years later, because at the time operators were not required to report such incidents to regulators.

At least 37 workers were exposed to low doses of radiation at a 1997 fire and explosion at a nuclear reprocessing plant operated in Tokaimura, just 70 km northeast of Tokyo. The operator, Donen, later acknowledged it had initially suppressed information about the fire.

In 1999, workers at the Tokaimura plant used stainless steel buckets to hand-mix uranium in flagrant violation of safety standards. Two workers later died as a result of radiation poisoning. Hundreds of people were exposed to radiation and thousands evacuated in the accident, which the government assigned a level 4 rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale ranging from 1 to 7, with 7 being most serious.

In 2000, several executives of Tepco were forced to resign after a whistle-blower revealed he had been ordered by the company to edit video footage showing cracks in steam pipes and reactor containment structures at one of the company’s nuclear plants.

In 2006, Tepco reported that a small radioactive steam leak from the Fukushima plant had managed to spread away from the plant site.

In what should have been regarded as a warning about seismic risk to Japan’s reactors, a strong earthquake in northwest Japan in 2007 caused a number of serious malfunctions at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant, including radioactive water spills, burst pipes and fires.

Although the Japanese government would officially like to restart most of the country’s reactors, resistance from the public has made the idea politically risky, leading some to conclude the industry might be finished for good. In any event, all expansion or new plant construction plans have either been canceled outright or put on indefinite hold.

In France and Japan, the two countries with the strongest and most experienced nuclear sectors in the world, there is on the one hand a state-run industry (as the Philippines’ own nuclear sector, beginning with the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, is envisioned by its advocates) which is a financial failure and can’t even produce its nuclear-generated electricity at a cost lower than the prevailing retail rate. And on the other, we have a regulated, private sector-run industry saddled with inefficiency and nonfeasance, which had its weaknesses exposed by a natural disaster to such a comprehensive degree that it probably killed the industry.

Still think nuclear power in the Philippines, a country with no experience or knowledge in the sector, nothing, really, except the shallow enthusiasm of a relatively small number of boosters, is a good idea?

ben.kritz@manilatimes.net

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2 Comments

  1. John Greenberg on

    “The accident did not, as far as is known, cause any direct radiation deaths away from the plant site ….”

    This is about as misleading a statement as a journalist can make about ANY chronic illness, on a par with saying that there are no direct tobacco-related deaths when passing a room full of heavy smokers, or that no one is injured by exposure to one glass of water with high lead content.

    Like many other pollutants and just like tobacco smoke, radiation causes cancer which kills over a period of years, not days. There should be no expectation that immediate or easily identifiable deaths would result. Indeed, other than death from acute radiation poisoning, what would anyone expect?