Japan’s nuclear crisis could be foreseen – a view from 19 years ago


In the early 1990s I worked for several years in Japan as a financial and business journalist. The first article I ever wrote beyond the world of business was on an issue that I felt was very important: the dangers of Japan’s nuclear program.

I have been searching for the article for the last week, and eventually found it last night. The article (embedded and full text below) was published on June 30, 1992 in The Bulletin, at the time Australia’s leading newsweekly magazine.

The letters to the editor from senior nuclear industry figures in response to my article scoffed at what they said was an alarmist and inaccurate portrayal. The facts are:

* The Monju reactor I described went operational in April 1994, and was shut down in December 1995 after a sodium leak caused a major fire, with a major scandal emerging on the attempted cover-up by the government. It took 14 years before it was operational again, in May 2010.
* In 1999 fuel reprocessing workers didn’t follow safety procedures, leading to 2 deaths and hundreds being exposed to radiation.
* A multitude of other problems and cover-ups have led to the continuing post-earthquake nuclear crisis.
* Rokkasho, which I also wrote about in the article, is still not fully operational, and was forced onto back-up generators after the earthquake. There are reportedly 3,000 tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel at the facility. Two years ago officials said that earthquakes weren’t a problem even thought the plant is built on a fault line, as the facility could withstand a 6.9 shock (the recent earthquake was 8.9).

In working as a futurist, I and others check what I have said in the past against what actually happens. In this case I wish I had been wrong.

Japan’s dream, the world’s nightmare

An obsession with energy independence has blinkered Japan to its associated dangers, writes Ross Dawson

Japan has a dream. It hopes to wean itself from its dependence on energy imports and avoid the pollution assoc-iated with fossil fuels. But in the process of realising this dream, it is taking on some frightening risks.

Domestic and international pressure is mounting to force it to change tack.

The technology Japan plans to use to achieve its goals is nuclear fuel recycling. Conventional nuclear energy plants use enriched uranium for fuel — part of the waste generated by these plants, however, is plutonium which when re-processed can be used to fuel other nuclear plants or to make bombs.

Fast breeder reactors (FBRs) produce more plutonium than they consume, thus enabling a fuel cycle to be formed.

Aims: Enthusiastic officials say that a nuclear energy program based on this fuel cycle preserves natural resources, reduces production of nuclear waste and minimises carbon dioxide output — thus avoiding contributing to global warming and acid rain. In reality, these are negligible considerations advanced as part of Japan’s public relations efforts.

Japan’s obsession with energy independence, re-inforced by the 1970s oil crisis, has led it to embrace what it believes is the best means of increasing its energy security and to overlook the problems associated with this technology.

Of vital concern to Australia is the example which Japan is setting to other Asian economies. Developing countries throughout East Asia are keen to copy Japan’s industrial policies in an attempt to emulate its economic success and those which are implementing or considering nuclear energy programs are being influenced by Japan’s strategy. North Korea, which is itself under strong international pressure to open up its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has fought back by criticising Japan’s nuclear plans. If any countries in the Asia-Pacific follow Japan in developing a plutonium-based nuclear energy program, regional tensions are likely to mount even further.

The US was the first to abandon fast breeder reactor technology in the 1970s. France, Britain and Germany have also gradually curtailed their programs as they realised the risks and costs involved outweighed the hazy ideal of a closed fuel cycle. FBRs are several times more ex-pensive to run than reactors fuelled by uranium but, more importantly, it is theoretically possible for a malfunction to result in a “core disassembly incident” — better known as a nuclear explosion.

Japan has been developing the equipment and plants necessary to implement its technology for more than 20 years; an experimental FBR has been in operation for 15 years and partial fuel reprocessing is done a small plant in Tokai village. But the essential elements to complete the nuclear fuel cycle on a large scale are only now coming into action.

Rokkasho, at the northern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu, is home to a massive uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plant which began enrichment operations in March. Government plans call for it to produce 50 tons of fissile plutonium by 2010.

The other key link in the chain is a $6 billion FBR called “Monju” which is scheduled to go critical this year. Other FBRs are planned, however — most plants to be built in the next decade will be light-water reactors which can use either uranium or plutonium as fuel. These new plants will enable Japan to expand its production of nuclear energy by 59% from 30 gigawatts (GW) last year to more than 48GW in 2001, bringing it to more than 22% of energy generation.

Japan’s nuclear industry has mainly been fuelled by enriched uranium supplied by the US although, until local plutonium reprocessing begins late this decade, Japan has had to enlist the assistance of France and Britain to reprocess its spent nuclear fuel into plut ium. The so program requires 30 tons to be shipped to Japan over the next 18 years, around one ton at a time. The first of these shipments, scheduled for the northern autumn, has already proved extremely contentious.

The cargo ship carrying the world’s largest ever plutonium shipment will be accompanied by a lightly armed escort from Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency but critics say adequate provisions have not been made to ensure the safety of the radioactive metal in case of an accident or terrorist attack.

A 1988 US-Japan agreement sets out guidelines for shipments of plutonium derived from nuclear fuel that originated in the US. However, US nuclear proliferation expert Paul Leventhal has pointed out that the planned shipments do not meet these standards.

Ban: The official US line until recently was that it was not concerned over the safety of the shipments although, at the end of May, the Nuclear Regulatory Committee – a US government agency – was reported to have registered its disapproval by banning the Japanese vessel from docking at US ports.

A major role of the Vienna-based IAEA is to ensure that plutonium used for nuclear energy purposes does not go as-tray. In April, it directly expressed its concern to Japan over the planned nuclear program – partly because it does not feel capable of monitoring the 85 tons of plutonium planned to be shipped to or generated in Japan over the next 18 years – and proposed that Japan’s plutonium stockpiles be placed under international custody. The IAEA is keen to avoid setting a precedent for non-nuclear-armed countries controlling large quantities of plutonium.

These concerns are particularly relevant as something the Japanese could not have foreseen comes into play: plans to dismantle nuclear warheads in both the US and former Soviet Union, freeing up to 80 tons of plutonium. Together with Japan’s immense reprocessing program, this would create a global glut to compound the problems of safeguarding stocks of the deadly metal. Only five to 10 kilograms of plutonium is required to build a primitive nuclear bomb.

This issue was acknowledged in April by Takao Ishiwatari, president of the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp, who indicated that the prototype fast breeder reactor Monju might be used primarily as a fast reactor if a supply of plutonium were assured – meaning that it would consume rather than regenerate plutonium.

According to recent unattributed reports in a major Japanese daily newspaper, FBR technology is to be abandoned. However, government officials have firmly denied this.

In any case, this would not imply a move away from a plutonium-based program but simply that Japan would continue to rely on uranium and plutonium imports into the next century rather than regenerating enough plutonium for its needs.