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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Japanese fears over nuclear power
An electrical transformer near the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant
Radioactive material leaked from the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant
As Japan admits that radioactive material leaked from a nuclear power plant during Monday's powerful earthquake, the former BBC Tokyo correspondent Jonathan Head looks at why Japan has stuck with nuclear power despite the risks.

Japan is the only country to have suffered a full-scale nuclear attack, and the only country to have suffered massive casualties from radioactive fallout.

It seems odd, then, that it is so addicted to nuclear energy, operating more reactors than any other country after the United States and France.

And it seems especially odd in view of the country's vulnerability to natural disasters like earthquakes.

Despite the acute public sensitivity to nuclear power following the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has long been concerned over another vulnerability - its lack of indigenous energy resources.

Aside from some small-scale geothermal power projects, the country has no other significant sources of energy - no oil, and very little coal.

Indeed it was Japan's hunger for reliable energy supplies that, in part, drove its military expansion into Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

So when the US began promoting nuclear technology in the 1950s under the slogan "Atoms for Peace", Japan - by now a close Cold War ally - eagerly signed up.

The construction of power plants reached its peak in the 1970s and 80s, at a time when Japan's export-driven and energy-hungry industries were also expanding at their fastest.

The fire at the Kashiwazaki plant was put out after several hours
1999 - Two workers killed in explosion at Tokaimura plant
2003 - 17 Tepco plants shut down over falsified safety records
2004 - Five workers killed by steam from corroded pipe at Mihama
2007 - Damage inflicted on Kashiwazaki plant from earthquake

Concern over nuclear safety was not widespread back then, and the Japanese were accustomed to placing great faith in their engineers, who had learned to build skyscrapers, roads, bridges and sea walls that could withstand earthquakes.

Large-scale construction projects like nuclear power plants also fitted into the Japanese model of spending heavily on infrastructure to boost development in the regions.

They also benefited industrial champions like Toshiba and Mitsubishi, which manufactured much of the technology that went into the nuclear facilities.

This was a time when Japan's powerful bureaucrats laid down the blueprint for the country's development, with little dissent from most of its citizens.

Safety concerns

The nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, prompted more Japanese to question their own nuclear industry, but they remained a tiny and powerless minority.

The real catalyst for the growth of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan has been a string of accidents, safety lapses and cover-ups which have led to a collapse of public confidence in the way the industry is run.

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

In 1999 two workers were killed and hundreds of homes had to be evacuated after an uncontrolled nuclear reaction took place at the Tokaimura plant north of Tokyo.

It turned out that the workers had been mixing dangerous quantities of uranium in an open tank, in clear defiance of safety regulations. They were Japan's first nuclear casualties since 1945.

Three and a half years later Tepco, Tokyo's electricity provider, had to shut down all 17 of its reactors after admitting it falsified its inspection reports.

And Japan's worst accident at a nuclear facility took place at Mihama, on the west coast, in March 2004, when five workers were killed by scalding steam from a corroded pipe. The pipe had not been inspected for eight years.

After every incident Japan's nuclear operators have promised to improve safety procedures, but only this year all 12 power companies admitted to thousands of irregularities in reporting past problems.

As a result, residents across Japan have started resisting the construction of new nuclear facilities, and in some cases have taken legal action to suspend operation in existing plants.

The courts now appear to be more inclined than they were in the past to act against the nuclear industry.

A pervasive culture of secrecy that is commonplace in corporate Japan, and traditional hostility to whistleblowers, make it hard for the industry to change.

Withstanding tremors

Then there is the question of resistance to earthquakes.

Existing regulations require nuclear power plants to be able to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 6.5, although the government now wants to raise that to 6.9.

But in most of Japan, potential earthquakes could be a lot stronger than that.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march outside Tokyo Electric Power Co. 1999
There is acute public sensitivity to nuclear power in Japan

One plant I visited two years ago, in Hamaoka, on the coast south of Tokyo, is built directly on top of a major fault line. Just offshore, in the Pacific Ocean, three of the planet's main tectonic plates rub against each other.

A shortage of suitable land - most of Japan is very mountainous - forces the power companies to build in places like Hamaoka.

The reactors there could well be the strongest anywhere in the world - they sit in massively-reinforced concrete bunkers, supposedly able to withstand a quake up to 8.5 in magnitude.

Hamaoka's operator says this encompasses every conceivable tremor in Japan - but the earthquake that triggered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was measured at more than 9.0.

'Human error' fears

Proponents of nuclear power argue that there have been remarkably few serious accidents around the world, considering the number of reactors in service and the five decades or so they have now been operating.

They point out that during the great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which flattened the city of Kobe and killed more than 6,000 people, none of the nuclear power plants in the area were badly damaged.

But Japan's record suggests that future accidents are more likely to arise from human error than natural disasters.

Opponents of nuclear power also worry that Japan might use its civilian industry as the basis for developing nuclear weapons, in response to the threat from North Korea, although the constitution currently bars such a move.

The urgent need to reduce carbon emissions in the world's second-largest economy will probably eclipse all these concerns, and Japan is certain to continue relying on nuclear power for the foreseeable future.

Its citizens can only pray that it does so with a more entrenched culture of safety than it has shown in the past.

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17 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Japan earthquake
16 Jul 07 |  In Pictures
Nuclear scare after Japan quake
16 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan's shaky nuclear record
24 Mar 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan's earthquake watch
25 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Japan
03 Jul 07 |  Country profiles

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