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Japan's shaky nuclear record

By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online

The decision by a Japanese court to order the closure of the country's newest nuclear reactor casts a shadow over the future of Japan's nuclear power industry.

Kansai Electric Power Co. President Yousaku Fuji makes a deep bow at the start of a press conference at its head office at Osaka, Monday August 9, 2004
Japan's nuclear industry has suffered a string of PR disasters

Japan, with few natural resources of its own to meet its high energy demand, is very reliant on nuclear power.

But a string of safety scares has prompted analysts to ask whether Japan is over-reliant for its energy on a potentially dangerous industry.

Japan has the third largest nuclear generation capacity in the world, with 55 reactors, behind only France with around 59, and the United States with over 100.

The Shika nuclear power plant, which will be closed if an appeal by the operating company fails, is Japan's second largest nuclear reactor, and its fate could affect the future of the country's 54 other reactors.

If any of them are even temporarily closed down, it would leave the country with a serious power shortage, as they account for about a third of its electricity needs. In the US, in comparison, nuclear power provides about 20% of the country's electricity.

Accidents

Japan imported its first commercial nuclear power plant from the UK in 1966, and completed its first indigenous reactors in 1970.

While Japan holds a good reputation for public safety, its nuclear industry has suffered several setbacks in recent years.

This includes an accident at a plant in Tokaimura in 1999 caused by workers trying to save time by mixing excessive amounts of uranium in buckets, which killed two people and injured hundreds, and the temporary suspension of all 17 of Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco) plants in April 2003 after it admitted falsifying safety records.

In 2004, Japan suffered its worst-ever nuclear power accident, when hot water and steam leaking from a broken pipe at a nuclear plant run by Kansai in western Japan killed five workers.

Satoshi Fujino, public relations officer at the Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo, has said the roots of the problems are two-fold: inadequacy in government regulation and a culture within the industry's management of covering up mistakes.

Mr Fujino says the safety appraisal process, which takes place before a power plant is even built, was extremely lax, while the inspections carried out afterwards are "very haphazard".

In the case of the Shika plant, local residents filed their lawsuit in 1999, complaining that the facility had not been built to a high enough standard to withstand earthquakes, but by the time the Kanazawa district court had weighed the evidence, the plant had already been built.

Workers check for radiation inside the Tokaimura plant
The accident at Tokaimura in 1999 set off a self-sustaining nuclear reaction

The power companies insist that they over-engineer their reactors to withstand every conceivable tremor. They point to the last big earthquake in Kobe in 1995, in which buildings and highways collapsed and more than 6,000 people died, and yet none of the nuclear power stations in the area suffered significant damage.

But public trust has been shaken by a number of mainly minor accidents in recent years.

In the case of Japan's worst incident, at the Mihama plant in Fukui prefecture in 2004, maintenance and safety standards do appear to have been poor.

Kepco, which manages the Mihama plant, has admitted since the accident that it had not properly checked the pipe which burst, fatally scalding five workers, since it was installed in 1976.

It admitted that the pipe had only been inspected visually rather than by ultrasound. Because of this, the pipe had been allowed to degrade until it was wafer thin.

Ironically, Japan's Kyodo news agency has reported that police believe workers may have been neglecting safety standards in order to prepare for their upcoming annual official inspection.

The industry's reputation for shaky safety has resulted in popular opposition to the power plants - opinion polls show half the public believe the number of nuclear facilities should be reduced.

'Secrecy'

Public confidence was not improved by the Tepco scandal, which demonstrated the culture of doctoring records within the industry.

"Secrecy seems to be a characteristic of the nuclear industry, especially in Japan, because society is very much reluctant to talk about things. So information is fairly easily concealed, because the social system supports that kind of culture," Mr Fujino has said.

But not all analysts agree.

John Shepherd, director of Nucnet, an independent emergency reporting organisation, said at the time of the Mihama accident that the industry appeared to be learning from its mistakes.

Kepco had responded quickly, and their account has been verified by three independent sources, he said.

"From what I know of the industry, I think there's a real concerted effort to make people aware that safety is the utmost priority," he said, pointing to the launch of an independent body which monitors nuclear safety.

But whatever progress has been made, this latest decision over the Shika plant is unlikely to reassure a jittery Japanese public.

SEE ALSO
Japan court orders reactor closed
24 Mar 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Blaze at Japanese nuclear plant
22 Mar 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Accident at Japan nuclear plant
09 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Fire alarm at Japan nuclear plant
04 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan restarts nuclear reactor
07 May 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Power shortages threat to Tokyo
15 Apr 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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