Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Japan's Nuclear Power Plants: A History of Accidents

Fukushima Power Plant on March 12th, 2011
You can't have escaped the recent panic over the raised radioactivity around Fukushima nuclear power plant, following damage to the cooling systems after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011. All over the world, people have been panicking. Press reports claim that people in the U.S. and Canada, in fears of radiation spreading across the ocean, are buying up iodine tablets (thought to be ineffective as it is actually potassium iodide that should be taken, which is perhaps even harmful if taken without exposure to radiation - see "Should Americans Take Iodine..." on About.com). But while the media is acting as if this is a world-shaking event, a disaster that could be "worse than Chernobyl", something set to shake up the power industry as we know it, to redefine the way we view nuclear energy and to make governments question their choices about power; it has come to light that this is definitely not Japan's first nuclear accident. A brief search into Google's news archives from the last couple of decades has brought some interesting things to light, which I am too young to remember. It seems, though, that the media and the Japanese population have largely forgotten about these incidents, too.

Before you read on, this is not meant to be a full-frontal attack on the nuclear power industry. My interest is more in the short attention span/memory of the media and the public, although the amount of accidents - while long-term or serious damage doesn't seem to be reported - should surely raise eyebrows, if not questions.

1981 - Tsuruga

As far back as 1981, the Japanese government threatened legal action against the executives of a nuclear power plant after it was revealed that they failed to report a spill of radioactive waste water, which exposed 56 workers to radiation and leaked into a nearby bay (Williamson Daily News, April 22nd 1981). The accident was not reported until 40 days later, and was apparently the second cover-up at the plant that year (Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 21st 1981). Soil in the area was said to be contaminated (New York Times, April 19th 1981).

1991 - Mihama, Fukui 

A tube was damaged, causing radioactive water to leak into a steam generator. "The company has not said whether the accident proceeded to the next step, in which the loss of pressure allows water in the core to boil. In that case, cooling would nearly stop, and the fuel could melt, releasing large amounts of radioactive material," reported the New York Times, on Feb 12th 1991.

At around the same time, there were rumours of other incidents in nuclear power plants around Japan, although it is difficult to ascertain evidence of this. "Even while investigators examined the Mihama plant, three incidents occurred at other nuclear reactors around the country. None was classified as very serious, except one in which small amounts of radiation were released. Only sketchy details were available," writes David Sanger in the New York Times, Feb 4th 1991. He continues to talk about how these accidents have cast shadows on the government's claims that a catastrophic nuclear accident has a one in 100,000 chance of happening, and how it later transpired that workers at the Mihama plant ignored warnings of increased radiation, which began 90 minutes before the incident.

"As questions about the accident mounted, the Government issued new rules a week ago requiring the country's 40 nuclear plants to shut down immediately if they see radiation levels are rising more than 20 percent." - Interesting, and from the same article as above.

1992 - Fukushima

Yes, the same power plant that is currently experiencing problems... and the same issue, more or less. Three cooling pumps failed back in 1992, causing the level of the cooling water to fall by 10ft. It is unclear as to whether the rods were exposed, as the same article mentions that they weren't, and then that they were briefly half-exposed. The emergency core cooling system kicked in, pouring water into the reactor and averting any disasters (Daily Union, September 30th 1992); the water-pouring being the same "ingenious" method that was used this March.

1995 - Monju, Tsuruga

A leak in the cooling system caused an emergency shutdown; later thought to be the result of a corroded pipe. The government assured the public that there was no danger to the public (Lewiston Morning Tribune, December 10th 1995). This particular reactor used (uses?) plutonium rather than uranium, which is far more dangerous and cannot be cooled with water, but rather, with sodium (The Daily Gazette, December 10th 1995).

At a news conference, officials admitted to heavily editing a video of the accident before handing it to news media, in order to make the accident appear less serious. An investigator into the cover-up, allegedly innocent but distressed by evidence that he had unearthed, committed suicide (New York Times, January 14th, 1996).

1997 and 1999- Tokaimura

In March 1997, Two fires broke out within 10 hours of each other at a nuclear waste handling facility. Workers were exposed to "tiny" amounts of radiation (Lakeland Ledger, March 12th 1997).

Then, in 1999, it was reported that radiation levels in Tokaimura were 15,000 times higher than normal, although - as with Fukushima - we must remember that "higher than normal" doesn't necessarily mean dangerous.

"'There is a strong possibility that abnormal reactions are continuing within the facility,' Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka told an emergency news conference. "There are concerns about radiation in the surrounding areas.' He said that it was very likely that there had been a "criticality incident" at the plant. Criticality is the point at which a nuclear chain reaction becomes self-sustaining."
" 'The situation is one our country has never experienced,' Mr Nonaka said. Three workers from the plant have been taken to hospital and hundreds have been forced to leave their homes. One of the three workers in hospital is reported to be in a serious condition, suffering from continuous vomiting." - BBC News, September 30th 1999. If you follow this link, you will see a table of "nuclear accidents in Japan", which doesn't go back further than 1995 but mentions some that I had not come across when I searched. The first of the plant workers, Hisashi Ouchi, died less than three months later (BBC News, December 21st, 1999), - he was apparently exposed to around 18 sieverts of radiation (New Scientist, January 8th, 2000), which I believe would be 18 million microsieverts (in this diagram).

2004 - Mihama

"At least" four workers were killed, and others injured, after a steam leak. The steam allegedly contained no radioactive material, and the reactor remained stable (ABC News, August 9th 2004) - it was the blasts that caused damage to the workers. While no radiation leaked into the environment, they say, a very worrying quite was found in a news article:

"Last summer, the Tokyo Electric Power Company was forced to temporarily close all 17 of its nuclear power plants after admitting it had faked safety reports for more than a decade.
'After the Tepco scandal of two years ago, today's accident would accelerate people's worry and suspicion about the safety management of the nuclear power plants,' Satoshi Fujino, a staffer at Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, a private nuclear power-watch organization, said in an interview today. 'This plant is pretty old, and there are many plants even older.' " - New York Times, August 10th, 2004 (my italics).

TEPCO scandal? Sure enough, I looked back to 2002 and discovered that the president, vice president and chairman of TEPCO resigned after it transpired that they had failed to report cracks in nuclear reactors during the late 1980s and 1990s. This is the same TEPCO currently in charge of the Fukushima nuclear power plant (CNN, September 2nd, 2002... tactful heading..).

2007 - Kashiwazaki

An earthquake caused a radiation leak and other damage at a power plant near Kashiwazaki. TEPCO said that over 50 problems had been found as the result of the earthquake, including 100 drums of radioactive waste falling over, the contents of some spilling out. 317 gallons of water containing trace levels of radioactive materials leaked into the Sea of Japan (New York Times, July 17th, 2007).


And so, we're back up to date with the 2011 incident. It's interesting to note how every accident has been reported as "Japan's worst nuclear accident", and how we haven't heard much about the after effects once the media has been distracted by something shiny. Still, you can see for yourself how reports on Japan were once confined to small "world news" sections in newspapers - while today we have the entire world at our fingertips. With one click of a mouse (or push of a button), we can view hundreds of news articles about the latest accidents, making Fukushima seem like the first thing that's ever gone wrong in Japan's nuclear industry history. The same thing makes it seem as if Japan is experiencing a lot more earthquakes than usual - but please remember, just because the Western media shows interest does not make something a bigger story than it is. The number of articles on a topic does not correlate with the severity of the situation - after all, there are cover-ups, while celebrities are chased down the streets by paparazzi when they go out to buy a pint of milk.

The findings are quite worrying, though. While no massive radiation leaks or damage has been reported, can we trust companies who admit to faking their own safety reports? When people die from blasts, investigators commit suicide and the government threaten to sue companies for hiding information, what are we meant to think now when we're told not to worry? Of course, the readings being taken independently in Tokyo at the moment show that the levels of radioactivity in the air are safe.

But I want to finish with this link - the story of Plutonium Boy. Used in 1993/1994 in Japanese schools to show how safe and friendly plutonium was, fortunately it seems that nobody bought this blatant propaganda. It sickeningly reminds me of the "cute" Japanese war mascot. So, here's the video - somebody uploaded it to Youtube. The quality is bad and the translation is not 100% there, but you can get an idea.

Erm... concerning?

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