Crisis highlights fears of nuke power plants

An earthquake on Friday knocked out power at  Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. —  Reuters picture

THE explosion and radiation leaks at the earthquake-damaged nuclear plant will raise fresh questions about the ambitious plans to develop nuclear energy in Japan, despite the industry's troubled history and years of grassroots objections from a people uniquely sensitive to the ravages of nuclear destruction.
The damage to the plant, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, could also stir wider doubts in a world that, while long sceptical of nuclear energy's safety, has increasingly accepted it as a source of clean energy in a time of mounting concerns about the environmental and public health tolls of fossil fuels.

An earthquake on Friday knocked out power at Japan’s 
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.-PICTURE...

The failures of the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant's cooling system apparently caused the explosion, which destroyed a structure surrounding the reactor. The reactor was unaffected, government officials and the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power, said. They described the resulting radiation leak as small and getting smaller. Foreign experts have agreed with that assessment so far, although Japanese plant operators, wary of the public reaction, have minimised past accidents.

James M. Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the United States said the accident had unquestionably dealt a blow to the nuclear industry. While Japan may close the Fukushima Daiichi plant, one of its oldest, and point to the safety of its newer facilities, that might not satisfy concerns in Japan and elsewhere, he said. Decades ago, after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, Acton said, the nuclear industry tried to argue that newer reactors incorporated much better safety features. 
"That made very little difference to the public," he said.

Benjamin Leyre, a utilities industry analyst with Exane BNP Paribas in Paris, said that politicians in Europe and elsewhere would almost certainly come under increased pressure to revisit safety measures at nuclear power plants -- existing ones and those being planned -- and that a pause in development could result.

"What is likely to come will depend a lot on how transparent the regulators in Japan are," Leyre said.

"There will be a lot of focus on whether people feel confident that they know everything and that the truth is being put in front of them."

Nuclear advocates argued that the accident in Japan was singular in many ways and might have been mishandled, and that it was caused by a natural disaster on a scale never before experienced in Japan. They said that the excavation of fossil fuels has its own history of catastrophic accidents, including coal mine collapses and the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Critics of nuclear energy have long questioned the viability of nuclear power in earthquake-prone regions like Japan. Reactors have been designed with such concerns in mind, but preliminary assessments of the Fukushima Daiichi accident suggested that too little attention was paid to the threat of tsunami. It appeared that the reactors withstood the powerful earthquake, but the ocean waves damaged generators and backup systems, harming the ability to cool the reactors.

A quick alternative source of water for cooling the destabilising core should have been immediately available, said Nils J. Diaz, a nuclear engineer who led the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2003 to 2006 and had visited the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Diaz also suggested that the Japanese might have acted too slowly to prevent overheating, including procedures that might have required the venting of small amounts of steam and radiation, rather than risk a wholesale meltdown. Fear among Japanese regulators over public reaction to such small releases may have delayed plant operators from acting as quickly as they might have, he said -- a problem arising in part from the country's larger nuclear regulatory culture.

"They would rather wait and do things in a perfect manner instead of doing it as good as it needs to be now," Diaz said.

With virtually no natural resources, Japan has considered nuclear power as an alternative to oil and other fossil fuels since the 1960s; looking into the future, Japan regards its expertise in nuclear power as a way to cut down on its emission of greenhouse gases and to capture energy-hungry markets in Asia.

It was too early to tell whether Saturday's accident would have any effect on a national policy that has made Japan one of the world's top consumers of nuclear energy, with some 55 nuclear reactors, providing about 30 per cent of its electricity needs, or whether it would fan public opposition sharpened by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

To make plants resistant to earthquakes, operators are required to build them on bedrock to minimise shaking and to raise anti-tsunami seawalls for plants along the coast. But the government gives power companies wide discretion in deciding whether a site is safe.

Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.

In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at a plant in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the plant's operator, also Tokyo Electric, had unknowingly built the facility, the world's largest nuclear plant, directly on top of an active seismic fault. Though a series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public's fear, the company, which said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors, was allowed to reopen it in 2009.

Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of the plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995.

Andrew C. Kadak, a consultant and former chief executive of the Yankee Atomic Electric Company, said Japanese and American cultures were different when it came to communicating nuclear issues to the public.

"We have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- everything is out in public view," he said.

"The Japanese system is a little different. They are not used to openness and transparency."

Read more: Crisis highlights fears of nuke power plants

No comments:

Post a Comment