OSAKA — In early 1999, a group of German nuclear scientists and engineers had just returned to Osaka after visiting nuclear power facilities in Fukui Prefecture. Sitting in a bar in the Hotel New Otani, they were deeply disturbed.

“The equipment and the state of the plants was very bad, well below the standards that are legally acceptable in Germany. We couldn’t believe that such an advanced technological country like Japan would allow nuclear power plants to be run in such a slipshod and dangerous manner,” one of the engineers told The Japan Times.

Since then, this nation’s nuclear power industry has suffered a string of accidents, scandals and coverups.

A nuclear fission chain reaction accident at a uranium fuel plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in September 1999, a scandal involving falsified data related to MOX fuel, and continuous reports of accidents, mishaps and technical mistakes have led to a growing number of people, even among nuclear power advocates, to wonder out loud if a basic review of nuclear power policy is needed.

Then came the latest accident at the No. 3 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s power plant in Mihama, Fukui Prefecture, in which four workers were killed and seven others were injured by superhot steam blowing out of a worn-out pipe in a turbine facility.

The Tokyo-based Citizens Nuclear Information Center keeps an eye on accidents at all of the nation’s 52 nuclear power reactors.

In 2002, it tracked 46 significant problems at 10 power plants and fuel facilities that were reported by the power companies themselves. Of the total, 25 involved cracked pipes or other equipment.

Sixty-one more problems were found the following year, 22 of which involved cracks in welds, according to CNIC. Most were discovered during periodic inspections.

Then there are the nontechnological problems. Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced in October 2003 it had found iron scaffolding pipe in the suppression pool at the No. 2 reactor in the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

One purpose of the suppression pool is to serve as a source of water to cool the reactor core in an emergency. Had the iron pipe blocked the inlet for the water, it could have led to a major accident.

The revelation by Tepco led to a nationwide search for foreign objects inside nuclear plants.

“All together, well over a thousand items were collected, including an electric grinder, a wrench, dust masks, work shoes, plastic sheets, barbed wire and can lids. These incidents exposed the sloppy management of equipment in nuclear power stations,” said Baku Nishio of CNIC, which analyzed the data released by the utility firms.

International experts have also noted problems.

In 1992 and 1995, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency visited four reactors in Japan and found 90 problems with their safety inspections and procedures. Based on these two visits, they concluded that safety procedures in Japan’s nuclear power industry were “dangerously weak.”

Daniel Aldrich, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate who is completing a dissertation on nuclear power in Japan and France, says problems at Japan’s power plants, including the latest Mihama accident, stem from the political structure of the nuclear industry here.

“On the surface, this is a technical problem. But underlying it, I believe, is a political one. The central government of Japan delegates a great deal of responsibility to private utility companies, both in terms of safety and in terms of (assigning the location of reactors) overall,” Aldrich said.

“France’s nuclear power industry has yet to encounter fatal accidents like those that have plagued Japan; the French state keeps a very tight hand in nuclear safety. It is clear to me that the Japanese state needs to tighten up its inspections, and punishments for failed inspections, to reduce the likelihood of future accidents,” he said.

Finally, there is the often murky relationship between the utilities that operate the plant and the companies that actually do the work. The four who died in the Mihama plant were working for Kiuchi Keisoku, a subcontractor to Kepco.

While nobody is blaming the employees of Kiuchi Keisoku for the accident, their presence underscores the fact that much of the manual labor at Kepco plants, as well as inspections, is not done by full-time employees of the utility.

Yoko Fujita, Japan’s leading expert on working conditions of nuclear power plant workers, notes the relationship between subcontractors and the utilities.

“The utilities hire subcontractors with technical expertise to do things like inspections,” Fujita writes in “What We Really Want To Know About Nuclear Power Plants: 120 Basic Facts,” published earlier this year.

In fact, the Osaka-based Kiuchi Keisoku has reportedly been engaged in the inspection and maintenance of measuring instruments at the Mihama plant since 1970, and most of the people involved in Monday’s accidents were experienced workers.

“But there is a third level of subcontractors that rounds up local day laborers, farmers and fishermen to do the manual labor and construction work inside the plants in areas where the radiation levels are higher,” writes Fujita.

In 1979, freelance writer Kunio Horie wrote about conditions at the Mihama nuclear power plant. His book, “Nuclear Gypsy,” was a diary of his experiences working as a day laborer at the Mihama and Fukushima plants between fall 1978 and spring 1979.

In the book, Horie describes lax safety standards at Mihama, including workers and managers ignoring radiation monitors and Kepco subcontractor employees not bothering to inspect the day laborers’ cleaning and repair efforts because of radiation fears.

He writes of a general atmosphere of resignation among workers that they would get sick and die from radiation exposure, but says that the money, then about 5,500 yen a day, was too good to pass up.

Twenty-five years later, nearly everyone — both pro and antinuclear — agrees that basic safety standards are better for all workers than in Horie’s day.

But some in the antinuclear community say they suspect the hiring system for the dirtiest of jobs remains the same.

“It’s hard to say, but it appears conditions have not fundamentally changed since ‘Nuclear Gypsy’ came out. Certainly, working in the plants still puts people at risk. While the Mihama accident was not the fault of the subcontractors, there are still poor management attitudes on the part of Kepco and many of the workers involved,” said Teruyuki Matsushita, a member of the Mihama town assembly.

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