Just how much does Japan rely on nuclear reactors? For nearly four decades, atomic power has, after oil and coal, played a key role in meeting Japan’s energy needs. Today, 55 nuclear plants provide a third of the nation’s electricity.

Why does Japan embrace nuclear power?

Proponents, including the government and utilities, have long argued that nuclear power is the only reliable alternative to fossil fuels that can provide large quantities of electricity at a reasonable cost in fossil fuel-scarce Japan.

For the towns and villages hosting the majority of the atomic plants far from large metropolitan areas, nuclear power means generous financial subsidies from the government and utilities, as well as a source of high-paying jobs for local people.

Why is the nuclear industry forever dogged by scandal?

Mainly because of accident coverups and flaws that are later revealed.

In October, the government learned Chugoku Electric Power Co. had falsified data related to construction of a dam. Following the incident, it was revealed that several nuclear plants had unreported accidents — some deliberately covered up — and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ordered all utilities to recheck their records for accidents, coverups and other plant-related falsifications.

This led to 12 utilities owning up on March 30 to 97 incidents of nuclear plant-related malpractice. The most serious involved Hokuriku Electric and Tokyo Electric Power Co. Both failed to report reactor control rod accidents that led to uncontrolled criticality.

In 1999, when control rods fell out of Hokuriku’s Shika No. 1 reactor, it triggered a 15-minute self-sustaining chain reaction. Even worse was in 1978, when Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 plant went critical for about 7 1/2 hours after a control rod accident. When Tepco was forced to halt all of its reactors in 2003 for ordered inspections and repairs after it was learned via a whistle-blower that faults had been covered up, the 1978 accident was not revealed at the time.

Then there’s the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui that suffered a sodium leak accident and fire in 1995 that its operator got caught trying to cover up. It remains idle.

What have been Japan’s worst nuclear accidents?

Though different in scale, two deadly accidents share this distinction.

On Sept. 30, 1999, three workers at a nuclear facility in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, deliberately sidestepped safety procedures and, using buckets to mix an excessive amount of uranium into a settling tank, set off a chain reaction. By the end of the day, radiation levels around the site were 10,000 to 20,000 times above normal. A radiation advisory was issued by the governor to about 200,000 residents within a 10-km radius of the plant — nearly 10 hours after the accident.

Two of the three workers died of radiation poisoning and the industry was lambasted for safety lapses.

In August 2004 in Fukui Prefecture, a pipe in the secondary cooling system of the Mihama No. 3 plant ruptured, releasing 885 tons of scalding water. Five workers employed by a subcontractor of Kansai Electric Power Co. to inspect the plant were killed and six others seriously injured. It was learned the pipe had never been inspected after the reactor started up in the 1970s, despite warnings from the subcontractor to Kepco that it needed to be checked.

What measures have been taken to increase safety?

Even the most ardent antinuclear activists agree that compared with the 1970s and 1980s, safety procedures have seen vast improvement. The government vowed in February to bolster its oversight through better observations of actual operations and stricter checks by government inspectors to ensure inspection-related data are not fabricated.

It also plans to require utilities to report any trouble involving reactor control rods even if a criticality accident doesn’t occur.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan announced March 30 that it was taking four basic measures to improve safety, including working with each utility to stress the importance of recording data scientifically and properly, emphasizing to all employees the importance of observing the law, safe operating rules and compliance measures, creating an internal system that encourages workers to report any irregularities, and working with industry organizations to improve information exchanges.

What other problems do nuclear plants face?

Advocates and opponents of nuclear power agree that dealing with aging plants is the biggest challenge ahead. In the early 1970s, the conventional wisdom of experts was that an atomic plant could safely operate for about 30 years, although most now say they can operate for 40 years.

As of next year, 17 of Japan’s 55 plants will have been in operation for at least 30 years. By 2012, 23 plants will have been in operation at least 30 years, and four will have been in operation for 40 years.

The aging plants are a source of mounting concern, especially due to fears of them being damaged in the event of a major earthquake.

Then there is the question of where to dispose of nuclear waste in the long term, as the storage facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is just temporary, and an alternative, deep-underground storage site would face public opposition wherever it is proposed.

What is happening at Rokkasho and why is it so controversial?

Besides the temporary waste storage, a plant in Rokkasho is being built to reprocess spent uranium fuel from the 55 nuclear plants so it can be used again. Plans are for Rokkasho to reprocess up to 800 tons of spent uranium fuel per year. In addition, 8 tons of plutonium will be created annually as a byproduct.

Technical problems have plagued the reprocessing plant from the beginning and the startup date has been delayed 10 times. It is now slated to begin operations in November.

In May 2005, a group of experts, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, called on Japan to halt construction of the plant, warning that the 8 tons of plutonium that would be produced as a byproduct could make 1,000 bombs.

Could Japan use nuclear materials from Rokkasho or conventional power plants to build nuclear weapons?

Plutonium extracted from Rokkasho can make very effective nuclear weapons. Uranium from conventional power plants is a different story because it depends on how highly enriched the uranium is and how much is used.

Over the years, politicians, including Ichiro Ozawa, have publicly said Japan could make nuclear weapons using fuel from its reactors. But atomic industry officials scoff at the notion, citing technical and logistic hurdles as well as the expected domestic and international opposition to Japan going nuclear.

However, antinuclear activists worry more about atomic material finding its way into the hands of those who would build a dirty bomb. North Korea’s nuclear test last year combined with comments from senior Japanese politicians about the need for public debate on whether Japan should develop atomic weapons have raised concern that material from the country’s nuclear plants, especially Rokkasho, could eventually be used in an arms program.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.