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Japan’s nuclear power program is at a critical moment. Earlier this week, Mr. Hisashi Ouchi died as a result of exposure to massive doses of radiation during an accident three months ago at the Tokaimura uranium processing facility. He is the first Japanese to die in a nuclear accident. That tragedy follows news of an incident made public last week — the forging of test data on a new type of nuclear fuel shipped from Britain — that is likely to cause a major delay in the much-heralded “pluthermal” (plutonium thermal) program, which burns surplus plutonium with uranium.

The irregularities in the nuclear-fuel inspection now cast doubt over the safety of the program itself. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., which doctored some of its test data, has lost its credibility. As International Trade and Industry Minister Takashi Fukaya put it rightly, “confidence in the BNFL has collapsed.”

The incident has also shaken confidence in Kansai Electric Power Co., which was to have used the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at its nuclear power plant at Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, and in the government itself. Both sides must take the blame for failing to detect the testing irregularities on the part of BNFL, which reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from Japan. KEPCO believed what the British firm stated — that tests had been conducted properly — and informed MITI accordingly, and the ministry then took the report at face value.

The MOX fuel, which was shipped by two armed vessels between July and September, now lies at the Takahama plant. The immediate question is, what to do with it? In all likelihood, it will be shipped back to where it was produced — Britain, repeating the same elaborate and expensive safety precautions that accompanied its trip to Japan.

BNFL should bear primary responsibility for the incident. Data forgery came to light in September regarding MOX fuel for the No.3 reactor at Takahama. By then, the next batch of fuel for the No.4 reactor was on the way to Japan, raising suspicions that some of its data also might have been forged. There was good reason to doubt its accuracy since a lapse in the same testing procedure might well have been repeated.

However, BNFL gave assurances that all data on the MOX in transit was accurate. As it turned out, part of the data on the No.4 reactor fuel had been duplicated — a simple error that would have been easily detected through computer analysis. But both KEPCO and MITI did nothing of the sort; instead, they took BNFL’s statement at face value. To make matters worse, they maintained a similarly optimistic attitude in their subsequent inspections.

It is easy to imagine that KEPCO was motivated by business instincts to keep the costly MOX shipping project going. But this is not an ordinary commercial project: It is a nuclear project that must give top priority to safety, and that can be carried out only with the support and confidence of residents.

The pluthermal program holds the key, for the time being at least, to Japan’s efforts to use plutonium as fuel. For the past three decades the reprocessing of spent fuel — which generates surplus plutonium — has been the main pillar of the nation’s nuclear-energy program. The fast-breeder reactor, which does not generate surplus plutonium, is still a long way from commercial operation, in part due to a coolant leak in the experimental breeder “Monju.” This means the plutonium reclaimed by the British and French contractors will have to be used in pluthermal reactors, perhaps in the next 10 years or more.

Now, however, this plutonium-burning program faces a grim future. Originally it was scheduled to start at the Takahama plant at the beginning of next year, eventually involving a total of 16 to 18 reactors across the nation by around 2010. Given BNFL’s suspected propensity to cook up data, presumably for purposes of economy, as well as proven negligence on the part of both KEPCO and MITI, much more than a simple rescheduling of the program — delaying its start by one or two years, for example — seems necessary.

The latest incident has exposed once again the limitations of the existing system of nuclear energy administration, one that gives both promotional and regulatory powers to the same government office. The system is out of tune with the reality of the nuclear industry, which now supplies 35 percent of the nation’s total electric power, and has annual sales reaching about 5 trillion yen.

To secure the safety of the program it is essential to separate these two functions completely and establish a fully independent regulatory regime. At the same time, power companies with nuclear plants must bolster their efforts to give top priority to safety. A further erosion of trust in the nuclear-power generating system must be avoided at all costs.

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