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Taking stock of Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

Aditi Malhotra is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).
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  • March 22, 2011

    The Fukushima Dai’chi nuclear plant continues to remain the focus of the world’s attention as workers grapple with the probable meltdown in the power plant. The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant is a result of the earthquake, followed by the tsunami, which hit Japan on 11 March 2011, leading to massive human and infrastructure loss. The nuclear crisis is presently marked by three explosions in the Fukushima Dai’chi power plant (which consists of six boiling water reactors) after the cooling systems at different units failed, followed by the release of massive amounts of radioactive gas and food contamination. Over the years, Japan has become increasingly reliant on nuclear energy, though its nuclear safety record has not been very satisfactory and TEPCO, the organisation that constructed and operates the Fukushima Dai’chi plant, has had a checkered past as well. The country has seen some major nuclear accidents and subsequent cover-ups, leading to a degree of distrust among the Japanese public.

    In 1999, an accident occurred at the Tokaimura plant when nuclear fuel was being prepared using enriched uranium; many workers were exposed to high levels of radiation in this accident. In 2004, at the Mihama Nuclear power plant, four workers were burnt to death and seven injured when a steam pipe burst in the non-radioactive part of the reactor. In 2002, the chairman and four other executives of TEPCO resigned, after they were suspected of having falsified safety records at TEPCO power stations. Additional instances of falsification were identified in 2006 and 2007.1 TEPCO is believed to have been involved in 29 cases related to damage in many parts of the reactor pressure vessel such as core shroud, jet pump, access hole cover, feed water spurger, on-core monitor housing and others. Consequently, the authorities had asserted the development of very high safety standards. The current nuclear crisis, however, belies these claims.

    A question that comes up in the current context is the prudence of situating a nuclear power plant in low-lying land near the coast in proximity to a seismically unstable area. Some experts argue that the plant was placed near the coast primarily to use the seawater as coolant and dump the warmer water (post-cooling) in the sea. Another probable reason is the distance of these areas from densely populated regions. It is also important to note that the probability of a massive tsunami may not have been considered at the time when reactors at the Fukushima plant were being built between 1971 and 1979. New safety standards are not in consonance with the level of safety at Fukushima and the revision of seismic safety has been undertaken only three times in the past 35 years. Reportedly, TEPCO tested Units 1 and 2 for a magnitude of only 7.9 on the Richter scale.

    Even more alarming is TEPCO’s track record with regard to the Fukushima plant. In 2006, the Japanese government ordered TEPCO to check past data after it reported finding falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data was used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005.2 While carelessness or overlooking of nuclear safety has not resulted in the current nuclear disaster, it is rendering the crisis more unmanageable as days pass. In a recent report, TEPCO stated that during a scheduled inspection (2 weeks before the present disaster), it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment in the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex. The equipments so ignored included a motor and a backup power generator for Unit 1.3

    Another issue with regard to the Fukushima crisis is the case of secrecy and the government’s inhibition in sharing information. While the nuclear emergency has been a cause of worldwide concern, public and international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are becoming increasingly vocal about their frustration with the information delay. Many experts have stated that the Japanese authorities, particularly TEPCO, are downplaying the severity of the event, especially on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).4 Japan had rated the current crisis at scale 4 till March 18 and raised it to scale 5, which is lower in comparison to the IAEA rating of scale 6. The scale 6 level puts the Fukushima events in the league of the Mayak Nuclear Power plant explosion in the erstwhile USSR in 1957, which resulted in a radioactive cloud spreading over hundreds of miles and causing at least 200 cancer deaths.5

    Additionally, while Japan has declared a 20-30 km exclusion zone from the Fukushima plant, other nations (specifically, Australia, US, and Britain) have recommended an 80 km exclusion zone. The downplaying of the event by the Japanese authorities continues to be a cause of concern. TEPCO is failing to provide accurate and timely information so much so that on March 15 Prime Minister Naoto Kan admonished the utility officials for the delay in informing him about the fire in reactor No. 1.6 TEPCO has done this in the past as well, when it has delayed providing information or worse falsifying it. The case of cracks in the Fukushima plant in 1993 and 1994, which were downplayed by the authorities, deserves special mention. Cracks were detected in the core shroud at Units 1 and 4 at Fukushima Dai’chi in 1993 and cracks in the middle part of the shroud were detected at Unit 2 in 1994. The magnitude of the cracks in Unit 2 turned out to be far greater and more serious than what was stated in TEPCO’s official reports. Additionally, cracks were found in each shroud of Units 1, 3 and 5, which were covered up by the authorities.7

    Tracing the developments in Fukushima, some commentators have concluded that nuclear energy is too risky to be pursued further and this incident should be a trigger to boost the anti-nuclear debate. While such a stance is plausible, realistically, the world is not likely to witness a nuclear-free environment in the near future. Also, no amount of hysteria will force governments to shut down reactors that have been operating for years. The dangers of a Fukushima-like-disaster are unlikely to discourage countries like China, Pakistan, India, Iran and US. Consequently, it remains important to focus on improving the safety and security of nuclear power plants.