Ill-prepared for nuclear accidents

The exposure of 33 researchers to radiation on May 23 at a Japan Atomic Energy Agency research facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, revealed the JAEA’s failure to uphold basic safety standards. Education and science minister Mr. Hakubun Shimomura said May 28 that the ministry will thoroughly reform the JAEA. But unless the mind-sets of JAEA officials and researchers are radically changed, the reform will be meaningless.

JAEA also manages the prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, which has been inoperative for most of the past 19 years. The Nuclear Regulation Authority on May 15 decided to order JAEA not to engage in further preparatory work to restart the trouble-plagued Monju reactor until it improves its safety management. The NRA pointed out that JAEA failed to inspect nearly 10,000 reactor components in and after 2010. JAEA head Mr. Atsuyuki Suzuki resigned May 17.

What happened at JAEA’s Hadron Experimental Facility in the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) in Tokai shows that officials and researchers were not prepared at all for the possibility of a radiation accident.

On May 23, an experiment was taking place in which a proton beam was aimed at gold to generate elementary particles. An alarm went off at 11:55 a.m. when the proton beam grew 400 times stronger than planned due to a malfunction. This caused the gold to evaporate, releasing radioactive particles.

A researcher restarted the equipment just 13 minutes later, thinking there was no danger. But radiation readings in the facility then alarmingly rose to 4 microsieverts per hour — 10 times greater than normal — and officials shut down the equipment. To make matters worse, they vented the facility but the ventilator had no radiation filters so the radioactive particles were released into the environment. (A similar incident happened on a much larger scale during the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, when contaminated steam was released from a reactor containment vessel.) Deplorably it took about 1½ days for JAEA to report the accident to NRA.

A JAEA official said the organization had not expected such an accident and thus was ill-prepared for it. This shows that officials and researchers lack a basic awareness of the inherent dangers of nuclear research and thus were not prepared to adequately respond to an accident. It’s clear that they have learned nothing from the Fukushima disaster. This lax mind-set stems from the fact that the organization is overseen only personnel with strong ties to the nuclear power establishment. For example, two former bureaucrats of the education and science ministry — part of Japan’s nuclear village — joined the JAFA as directors upon their retirement.

The JAEA must be reorganized into an organization that is also overseen by people from outside the nuclear establishment. It should carry out projects that reflect the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, such as developing technologies to clean up radiation contamination and safely decommission reactors.

  • Starviking

    JAEA stated that the delay in notification was because they initially thought that the leak was confined to the laboratory. Mistaken, not deplorable.

    “A JAEA official said the organization had not expected such an accident and thus was ill-prepared for it. This shows that officials and researchers lack a basic awareness of the inherent dangers of nuclear research”

    Or maybe it was one of those “unknown unknowns” that can’t be guarded against?

    As for the venting, the NRA says that the mornitoring posts around the facility were within the normal range, and that no effects on the public were expected.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      “The inherent dangers of nuclear research”

      used to include above ground bomb testing, blowing up atolls, and EMP airbursts.
      If one were alive in the 40s and 50s, awash in radionuclides, they would have a good laugh, just for a few seconds, at a vaporized lump of gold, before pausing to wonder what they had been exposed to. Here we are today, contemplating that same lump of gold ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that things must be so much worse than we think they are despite all evidence to the contrary.

      In the face of these “inherent dangers”, who are the greater fools? Whichever might be the case with respect to foolishness, I will take our modern “inherent dangers” any day.

  • RadiationKing

    Yes, 10 times greater than normal. By that, normal is background radiation! So exposure in this environment for 1 hour is like living an extra 10 hours!!! Oh lordy, lordy, the world is coming to an end. This radiation hysteria is driving me nuts. Learn something about your irrational fear and maybe you won’t have to write misinformation on the internet.

    • Rockne O’Bannon

      Although I agree with you, are my units off? 4 micro is more like 100 times normal, isn’t it? I think Sendai today is about 0.04 and London is about 0.15 or so.
      In Japan of today people have a tremendously skewed view that nuclear risks are astronomical and out of control, and that the benefits are negligible. Maybe this contrasts with some PR campaigns before 311 that played up the benefits and dismissed the risks. That is all wrong. All of it.
      The truth is that the rewards outweigh the risks for at least another generation or so. Whether it is worthwhile to build new reactors or not, it seems worthwhile to follow through and get to something better in the meantime.

      • Starviking

        The NRA gives the values at a central location in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures ( http://radioactivity.nsr.go.jp/en/ )

        The value for Ibaraki, from Mito City is 0.076 microsieverts, so more like 50 times normal. Same ballpark though.

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    You know, on 311, chemical plants were swamped, refineries caught on fire, toxic chemicals were spilled by the ton into the ocean. And everyone paid attention to Fukushima. And let’s not kid ourselves that this kind of dumping doesn’t happen all the time in one way or another throughout the country. Why does this incident rate “honorable mention”? Oh yeah. Radiation. Right.

    I have seen the rage of nature and the triumph of the human spirit… and all that, because of 311, and I also see human fallibility. Is perfect performance 24/7 an attitude? Not really. If it is, it comes from experience and judgment, not from being henpecked to death.

    What happened here and what does it mean? Is it a deadly hazard… the tip of a iceberg set to sink our good ship Japan? Or is it just a guy with a particle beam having a bad day? Let’s be concerned, let’s learn and prevent similar incidents in the future. But let’s avoid screaming panic, conspiracy theories, and grandstanding. All of that is so tired. I won’t get too excited about a lump of evaporated gold, vented or not, when I have stared down the media trying to get me hysterical enough to abandon my home in a snowstorm.