Sunday, March 13, 2011

Backgrounder: Japan and Nuclear Power

By Norimitsu Onishi, Henry Fountain and Tom Zeller Jr., New York Times, March 12, 2011

Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.

In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at the world’s largest nuclear plant, in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the operator — Tokyo Electric — had unknowingly built the facility directly on top of an active seismic fault. A series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public’s fear. But Tokyo Electric said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors and reopened in 2009.
Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995.
In the hours after the blast at Reactor No. 1, nuclear advocates argued that Daiichi’s problems were singular in many ways and stemmed from a natural disaster on a scale never before experienced in Japan. They pointed out that the excavation of fossil fuels has its own history of catastrophic accidents, including coal mine collapses and the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some also said there might have been missteps in handling Reactor No. 1. A quick alternative source of water for cooling the destabilizing core should have been immediately available, said Nils J. Diaz, a nuclear engineer who led the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2003 to 2006 and had visited the Daiichi plant.
Mr. Diaz suggested that the Japanese might have acted too slowly to prevent overheating, including procedures that might have required the venting of small amounts of steam and radiation, rather than risk a wholesale meltdown. Fear among Japanese regulators over public reaction to such small releases may have delayed plant operators from acting as quickly as they might have, he said — a problem arising in part from the country’s larger nuclear regulatory culture.
“They would rather wait and do things in a perfect manner instead of doing it as good as it needs to be now,” Mr. Diaz said. “And this search for perfection has often led to people sometimes hiding things or waiting too long to do things.”
With virtually no natural resources, Japan has considered nuclear power as an alternative to oil and other fossil fuels since the 1960s. It has regarded its expertise in nuclear power as a way to cut down on its emission of greenhouse gases and to capture energy-hungry markets in Asia.
Japan is one of the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy. The country’s 17 nuclear plants — boasting 55 reactors — have provided about 30 percent of its electricity needs.
To make plants resistant to earthquakes, operators are required to build them on bedrock to minimize shaking and to raise anti-tsunami seawalls for plants along the coast. But the government gives power companies wide discretion in deciding whether a site is safe.
In the case of Saturday’s blast, experts said that problem was avoidable.
Mr. Diaz said that a comprehensive nuclear power plant safety program developed in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks would have prevented a similar accident at any of the nation’s nuclear facilities.
Is this another story in which the "perfect is the enemy of the good" where the resulting delays in taking stop-gap measures to cool the reactor down could be responsible for the first partial meltdown?

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