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.