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Tepco’s follies, reactor restarts and awkward plutonium stockpiles

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) is deservedly slagged as the Keystone Cops of nuclear power, and conjures up images of Homer Simpson, the iconic nuclear safety inspector in “The Simpsons.” Perhaps it ought to adopt as its mascot Ocnus, the Greek god who personifies futility.

It’s all so bad that, on a visit to Tepco’s stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant last Monday, industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi even compared the company’s cascade of snafus to a game of “whack-a-mole.”

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and three reactor meltdowns at the Tepco plant that followed, the utility has had a lock on the Pinocchio awards for corporate dishonesty as it has consistently misled the public about the crisis.

At least that was the case until it finally admitted in October 2012 that it had been lying about everything regarding Japan’s Chernobyl. Back then, Tepco finally disavowed its own June 2012 whitewash report — and it now acknowledges that human error led to the three meltdowns.

In addition, Tepco has also admitted that, even though it knew there was a risk of a massive tsunami, it rejected adopting sensible safety countermeasures, failed to train workers properly to respond to an emergency, and decided against practicing evacuations because it might be bad PR.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, surely speaking for most residents of Japan, recently fumed, “The utility’s glaring ineptitude with crisis management was noted right from the start of the Fukushima disaster. How and why could Tepco have kept repeating the same blunders over and over?”

This outburst was prompted by revelations about massive amounts of radioactive water leaking from the plant into the Pacific Ocean, explaining why 94 percent of Japanese believe the Fukushima accident has not been brought under control — and why 31 percent want to abandon nuclear energy as soon as possible, with an additional 54 percent supporting a gradual phaseout.

Almost 2½ years after the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, Tepco is still groping in the dark while 150,000 people remain displaced from their homes and the total cost of the nuclear accident is already approaching $100 billion. Ouch!

Entrusting the cleanup to the plant operator was a colossal mistake because it left critical decisions up to the same industry insiders who compromised nuclear safety before March 11, 2011, and subsequently mismanaged the crisis.

And guess who is removing 400 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from Reactor 4 at Fukushima? Not to jinx Tepco, but a miscue in this delicate operation would certainly take everyone’s minds off the leaking radioactive water problem because, in a worst-case scenario … well let’s not worry about that potential cataclysm because the cavalry has arrived. Belatedly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised the government will take care of things.

Long after the rest of the world, Tokyo’s finest finally lost faith in Tepco’s ability to manage the ongoing crisis at Fukushima, 200 km up the road. Yet still they hope to win the 2020 Olympics, though radiation probably trumps Madrid’s economic woes and Istanbul’s political clashes.

Abe intervened because the protracted Fukushima fiasco imperils his plans to fast-track restarts of idled nuclear reactors. This is risky politics, though, because the government now “owns” Fukushima but, aside from paying the bills, it is not clear what it can do to stop Tepco lurching from crisis to crisis. At least it is now tapping international expertise, doing what the International Atomic Energy Agency urged Tepco to do this past February to no avail.

The dirty secret is that the energy generated by the two operating reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s nuclear power plant at Oi in Fukui Prefecture has been surplus to needs — and in any event, in September they will be shut down for routine maintenance for six months. A Japan free of nuclear energy is coming. So why are reactor restarts deemed essential in a nation that has got by without needing any nuclear power through two sweltering summers?

The answer, in short, is damage control. Abe had to intervene because the lingering nuclear crisis imperils his pronuclear agenda. The government wants to shift the narrative from Tepco’s incompetence, and radiation still spewing into the environment, to the government offering reassurances that it will now bring the situation under control; it has lots to prove.

Team Abe worries that, without “cheap” nuclear energy, Abenomics might run out of gas. Taxpayers and nuclear refugees know it’s not such a bargain, but the nuclear village of pronuclear advocates is banking on the government to fend off antinuclear public opinion and rev up the reactors. In vocally and repeatedly backing reactor restarts, Abe is also exerting political pressure on the new nuclear watchdog agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), to get with the program.

Moreover, Abe sees great potential in overseas nuclear power markets and needs reactor restarts to back his sales pitch. His growth strategy calls for tripling infrastructure-oriented exports to $300 billion by 2020 — and nuclear technology exports are key to achieving this target.

Clearly, Japan is deeply enmeshed in the global nuclear-industrial complex; Toshiba owns Westinghouse while Hitachi and Mitsubishi have tie-ups with General Electric and Areva. Hence, Abe is an active pitchman for Japanese nuclear reactors — but if Japan itself begins phasing out nuclear energy, potential clients might look elsewhere.

Earlier this year Japan secured a $22 billion contract with Turkey (another quake-prone country). It has also signed a nuclear technology agreement with the United Arab Emirates and is eyeing sales to Brazil, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. In addition, negotiations are ongoing with India to enable Japan to sell its technology there, and Abe lobbied hard on behalf of Japan’s nuclear exporters at a June summit of the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

But given that Japan upped its renewable energy capacity by the equivalent of two nuclear reactors’ output in the past year alone, why not shift more resources into renewable energy and rely on relatively clean liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a transitional energy source while phasing out nuclear? After all, smaller scale, dispersed energy generation is more cost effective, contributes to disaster resilience and boosts local economies.

According to Andrew DeWit, a renewable-energy expert at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, this logic explains why there is a green revolution afoot, one that is happening because private firms and local governments know it makes sense. In the last year alone, some $20 billion has been invested in renewable-energy projects, while smart-grid and energy-efficiency initiatives are gaining momentum.

But restarting reactors remains crucial because Washington, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in May this year, is pressuring Tokyo to do so.

Japan has an overall stockpile of 150 tons of plutonium produced by its nuclear reactors, 44 tons of which is separated and weapons-useable — enough for 5,000 Nagasaki-type atomic bombs. This further undermines Washington’s dubious stance on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons if Japan is not using the processed fuel in reactors, and doesn’t plan to do so. And as Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, argues, “Having nuclear plants shows to other nations that Japan can make nuclear weapons.”

Point taken — but meanwhile let’s get those spent fuel rods moved without mishap and safely tucked away if there is such a place in which to do that.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Helen Bedd

    Tepco has been so utterly inept and dishonest they almost make BP look like a paragon of corporate responsibility….

  • jazz350

    Excellent article which should be widely published around the world.

  • Enkidu

    Professor Kingston, Please do describe your worst-case scenario for the removal of fuel from SPF 4 (not leaving it in ellipsis). I am curious as to how fuel rods that, at the minimum, have been cooling for nearly three years could cause a “potential cataclysm”. Where are you getting this advice?

    • abinico

      There are so many potential cataclysms with nuclear energy that listing them is fruitless. What would be a bad accident at a fossil fuel energy plant could be an ‘end of the world’ event at a nuclear facility. You are either ignorant or an nuclear industry shill to deny this.

      • Enkidu

        I ask for evidence of what I think is a dubious assertion, while you think that there are so many things that can go wrong that it isn’t worth listing them out, and somehow I am the ignorant one? Fascinating.

      • FabienBG

        The reactor 4 was supposed to be empty, but
        there was an explosion in there anyway. So if it was not from the reactor, it
        can only have been from the cooling pool.

        So what you’ve got in this pool are
        distorted racks, and rods that have overheated when they lost water back in
        03/2011 (remember the pool went in a dry state, then the explosion, followed
        shortly by the pool fire). Some of these rods have probably also been damaged
        by the explosion and debris going down the pool.

        So in short the rods cannot be pickup up easily,
        many are damaged, they stand in the middle of debris, and Tepco do not have
        access to the usual tools to pull them out. If the way they handle the whole
        mess until now is any indication, they also do not have the expertise to do it.

        Don’t forget there is a full reactor load
        in there that was put just days before 03/11. So even after 2 1/2 years it is
        still very hot. So if they break one or more, radiations will skyrock (we are
        talking MOX fuel here, so potential massive plutonium releases) and they will
        have to leave the site. Zirconium cladding fire is a well
        documented phenomena.

      • Enkidu

        Hi Fabien, Here’s some video of the racks from May 2011: http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/news/library/movie-01e.htmlbcpid=59368209002&bclid=59370327002&bctid=64705797002
        Do they look “distorted” to you?

        Also, the most recent rods were removed from the reactor in November 2010, which is more than “just days before 3/11″.

        Finally, I’m curious as to your assertion regarding a zirconium cladding fire for fuel that has been out of the reactor for nearly 3 years. Fuel can be placed in dry cask storage with no water cooling as early as one year after removal. http://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/dry-cask-storage.html See also: http://www.osti.gov/bridge/product.biblio.jsp?osti_id=6135335

      • FabienBG

        Well, Endiku funny you point to the nrc,
        because they also say: “Fuel is typically cooled at least 5 years in the pool before transfer to cask. NRC has authorized transfer as early as 3 years; the industry norm is about 10 years” : http://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/faqs.html
        And that’s probably why Tepco is planning to place removed rods from there to the common pool.

        As for your racks videos, your link is broke (as most of Tepco documents after a few months). But the video from May 8 clearly showed a lot of debris in there.
        And it was of course not possible to tell to what extend the rods sustained damages from the lack of cooling water in the pool.

        I hope of course you are right, and that they will be removed safely, and I admire your blind faith in Tepco capacities and skills. On the Internet one can find any “reliable” docs he wants, to support his point of view; even from the same sources than the opposite side. So I’m done here, because it will soon become a fruitless exchange ^^

      • Enkidu

        Fabien,

        That’s why I said “as early as”. My point was to rebut your cladding fire assertion, which apparently worked.

        Apologies for the broken video link. Please try this one: http://photo.tepco.co.jp/en/date/2011/201105-e/110508-02e.html.

        As for my “blind faith” in Tepco’s skills, you’ll note that my post had nothing to do with Tepco’s skills.

        “On the Internet one can find any “reliable” docs he wants, to support his point of view; even from the same sources than the opposite side.”

        I fail to see how how your reference supported your point of view and how it was inconsistent with the reference I provided. It is perfectly fine to say that fuel can be transferred to dry casks as early as one year after removal, but we generally wait at least five years and the NRC has authorized transfer only as early as three years. In the end, it still means that a cladding fire is not a risk here.

        Also, it appears to be not so easy to find any “reliable” doc you want on the Internet, as you have not been able to find any docs supporting your assertions that I questioned.

      • Sam Gilman

        Fascinating. If serious nuclear accidents result in end of the world events (and Chernobyl was very serious indeed) why are we still here? Does reality shill for the nuclear industry?

        The problem with fossil fuels isn’t simply when they “go wrong”. Through various emissions, burning coal kills hundreds of thousands each year (possibly millions if one includes China). Oil, coal and gas all contribute to global warming without accidents happening, and the death toll for that is rising each year too. It also involves evacuations (only truly permanent ones: their homes will be under water), the disruption of food production and water supplies that is going to be catastrophic.

        When there are accidents, they’re not good. Coal and uranium mining offer the same risks. Only coal is in practice 2 million times less energy dense than uranium, so obviously, per unit of electricity, coal mining is more dangerous. Oil and gas are dangerous to handle. In the tsunami and earthquake, far more people were directly killed by fires that resulted from fossil fuel spills than will be killed by radiation-induced conditions from Fukushima. We have a bad habit of forgetting these deaths very quickly.

        Lastly, oil spills are far worse for the environment than an accident like Fukushima, both in the short and long term. They can disrupt entire ecosystems. The area around Chernobyl is flourishing without humans; the Exxon Valdez spill is still causing damage.

        I am not paid any money by anyone connected to any energy industry in anything I do, so I’m not a shill. I also do my best to keep informed, and I think it’s unfair to call me ignorant.

        On the other hand, even after twenty years of informative public debate about the dangers of fossil fuels and global warming, and in the teeth of vigorous campaigning by industry interests, you feel able to write what you did without blushing.

        Calling people names isn’t my style, so I’ll let you decide what you think you are.

    • DeSwiss

      It’ll go BOOM. Then spread radioactive C137, Strontium and Plutonium way, way up into the upper atmosphere and around the world she goes. Then everyone will need to stock up on the SPF 4000 before they can go outside again.

      I hate to sound technical, but I didn’t want to go over your head. Or you could try Google: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/08/14/us-japan-fukushima-insight-idUKBRE97D00M20130814

      :-|

      • Enkidu

        I’m sorry, DeSwiss, but relying on two individuals, Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, who don’t have a single technical degree between them does not make you “sound technical”. That Reuters article didn’t even use the word “radiation” correctly in the first sentence, for goodness sake.

      • DeSwiss

        Then how about: ”independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt who said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.” [...]

        http://tinyurl.com/prwrro6

      • Enkidu

        DeSwiss, Again, neither of these two individuals have any technical training in this, which should immediately give you pause. (By the way, this is not surprising for enenews-sourced information, which as far as I can tell may be one of the worst sources of “e” news on the internet.) Would a “full release” of all of the radioactive isotopes in SFP 4 be bad? Absolutely. However, there is no plausible mechanism for a “full release”, which is what Mycle and Antony conveniently leave out. Remember, this fuel has been cooling for nearly three years at the minimum. For more information, please see the link I posted above for Fabien, particularly NUREG/CR-4982.

        As for enenews, I would strongly recommend against reading it, but if you must, please feel free to post any articles that cause you concern here. I’ll be happy to address them.

  • charlesjannuzi

    Like GE wasn’t inept in designing the Mark I and paying off how many people to get them built?

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    “Yet still they hope to win the 2020 Olympics, though radiation probably trumps Madrid’s economic woes and Istanbul’s political clashes.”

    Sadly, yes it does – in the minds of those who reject science in favor of fear mongers. Or in the mass media, which all too often is more interested in reporting profits and page hits than in reporting the news.