Can Japan Survive without Nuclear Power Plants?
Yuko Endo, mayor of Kawauchi in the northeast prefecture of Fukushima, has vowed to bring all of the evacuated residents of his irradiated village back home by next March. He made the pledge before a village assembly on September 13 in Koriyama City, which provided the venue. Six months ago, nearly 2,800 of the 3,000 residents of Kawauchi were evacuated. The village is located within the 20-kilometer “no entry” zones which were created following the tsunami of March 11 and the subsequent nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 Atomic Power Station.
The administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda - the third head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) since 2009 - has pledged an all-out effort to resolve the nuclear crisis, describing thorough decontamination as the key to reopening the five no-entry zones in Fukushima. Goshi Hosono, minister in charge of handling the nuclear crisis, has declared:
“The government will forge ahead (with massive decontamination schemes) across the board, covering all of the contaminated cities, towns and villages involved in the evacuation. As regards decontamination of areas with particularly large numbers of refugees, the government will take charge (because) the future of Fukushima Prefecture depends on how effective the decontamination efforts will turn out.” The central and local governments are finally joining hands to launch serious operations to secure a safe living environment.
Meanwhile, former Fukushima governor Eisaku Sato, noting that the return of even one of its companies to Kawauchi will create jobs for some of the villagers and thus help stabilize the basis of their livelihood, stresses the need for the prefectural and national governments to work out workable measures to guide interested companies in that direction. The former governor has this to say about the ties between the Fukushima nuclear plant and local communities:
“In the communities within the immediate area surrounding the plant, it can safely be said that at least one person per family has worked for it or its related facilities, and so has one person per every two families even in the peripheral villages. Therefore, if the residents are absolutely serious about bidding farewell to the nuclear plant, they may be able to return home but would most likely be unable to make a living - unless the authorities implement in-depth plans to restructure the basis of livelihood for the whole region. ”
On August 11, after a recovery/reconstruction plan was formally adopted by the Fukushima prefectural assembly, incumbent governor Yuhei Sato announced that Fukushima Prefecture would go non-nuclear. It was the first time that such a decision was made by a local government whose area is still dependent on nuclear power generation, making it imperative to develop realistic measures to create new jobs and secure the foundation of a decent standard of living.
Let us stop and think for a minute, however: can the big picture of Japan’s future - including its energy and industrial needs, the recovery and reconstruction of the disaster-hit regions in the northeast, and the general economic well-being, including stable employment - really be discussed without considering nuclear power generation? Two major points were brought into sharp relief during a symposium sponsored in Tokyo on September 12 by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), entitled “Can Japan Survive without Nuclear Power Generation?” The first point involved the important position Japan has occupied in the progress of the world’s atomic power generation technology; the second point was the revelation that the Japanese who have operated nuclear power plants generally show a stunning lack of professional expertise and proper awareness of the seriousness of their business.
Argues Professor Tadashi Narabayashi, a nuclear engineering expert at Hokkaido University:
“First of all, the Japanese mass media reports as if all of the nuclear power stations across Japan were in some state of danger, but that is far from the truth. The four reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Station (hereafter “F1), operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), have in fact broken down, but the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station run by the Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc., situated further north of F1, survived the gigantic quake and tsunami of March 11. The map shows Onagawa to be closer to the epicenter. How come Onagawa withstood the catastrophe and F1 didn’t, then? The answer is plain and simple: Onagawa had been prepared for big tsunamis.”
It is generally known that Tohoku Electric Power Co. built its nuclear power station on a ground five meters higher than F1. Prof. Narabayashi points out the uselessness of engaging in what he describes as “backward-looking debates” by focusing only on F1, ignoring the fact that Onagawa did indeed survive the deadliest of all the earthquakes (magnitude 9) and tsunamis that have ever hit Japan, and maintains that Japan should take credit for the high level of technology that saved Onagawa. He further stresses that the nuclear power plants currently under construction around the world have a sophisticated structure vastly different from F1, each marked by a significantly high safety standard.
“The city of Shanghai has come out with plans to build six new nuclear power plants, and construction has begun. What is installed in these nuclear plants is the latest ‘generation 3.5 AP1000 nuclear reactors,’ reflecting high technology developed by Westinghouse Electric Co., which Toshiba acquired in 2006.
“To explain broadly, right above the reactor building encasing the reactor containment vessel is a mega capacity water tank where a vast amount of water is kept at all times. If an accident occurs, the water in this gigantic tank automatically cascades down, cooling the steel shields that protect the pressure vessel from outside. If the temperature inside the vessel rises, valves begin to melt automatically, allowing water to be pumped through them, thereby soaking the entire nuclear reactor inside the vessel. With the reactor continuing to generate heat, water will inevitably be brought to boil and evaporate, but the steam thus created will hit the steel plates high up the vessel’s interior. Because water from the outside tank has cooled down the steel plates considerably, the steam is cooled down similarly as it hits the plates, ultimately turning back into water. The vessel’s structure thus makes it possible to circulate water within the vessel to gradually cool down the reactor itself without directly having to rely on water from outside.”
In other words, the new mechanism makes it possible to cool down the reactor without having to resort to outside electrical sources. This means the latest model reactor will not suffer hydrogen explosions even if it is placed under the same conditions as its F1 counterparts.
Compared with the nuclear power plants under construction in Shanghai equipped with the world’s most advanced generation 3.5 reactors, F1 sadly is just a first generation nuclear plant - actually, among the oldest in the world. However, the latest model reactor has already been brought into Japan - the generation 3 Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), known as the “improved boiling water type light water reactor.” Five of them are in operable conditions - two at Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, and one each at Hamaoka, Shizuoka Prefecture; Matsue, Shimane Prefecture; and Shiga, Ishikawa Prefecture. Another is scheduled for operation starting in November 2014 at Oma, Aomori Prefecture.
A special feature of this third generation nuclear reactor, showing a decisive difference from the reactors at F1, is its ability to prevent fuel rods from being exposed to the air in case of an accident.
Sustaining Japan’s Economy
Prof. Narabayashi emphasizes that the Japanese must come to grips with nuclear power in the context of the world’s technological advances in general as well as better understand the significant contribution Japan itself has made to those technological advances.
“The AP1000 reactor design is a technology that was originally developed by Westinghouse and now belongs to Toshiba. Also, an international project being carried out by a group of corporations with Hitachi and GE at its center is working on a new natural circulation type pressure vessel. The Japan Steel Works, Ltd. is the only company in the world that has the sophisticated technology to put together this particular device as a unit without welding, including the nozzle. Therefore, no matter who receives the order for this type of pressure vessel - be it a company in France or the United States or any other country - a Japanese corporation is bound to do the actual manufacturing. Now, if Japan should assume a non-nuclear stance, it will not be able to preserve and protect such technology. So, rather than deciding to go non-nuclear prematurely and putting an end to the development of such superb technology, I feel it is vital to continue pursuing ever higher technology, thereby protecting Japan’s position as one of the world’s front runners in this field, while also providing support to the Japanese economy in general with a broad based nuclear industry.
But former governor Sato still points out the Japanese should never forget the Fukushima accident did indeed happen, despite the high standard of the nation’s nuclear technology. Sato, who resigned as governor in 2006 over a bribery scandal, has fought the state over a number of vital issues, such as the environment and nuclear power. He had this to say about Japan’s nuclear power policy in A Plot to Eliminate the Governor: the Fukushima Bribery Incident Fabricated (Heibon-sha Ltd., Tokyo; 2009):
“Nuclear power policy is the state’s discretionary matter that not even members of the Diet can readily touch; behaving as the state likes, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) wields enormous power;and, Kasumigaseki ( i.e., the bureaucracy) has a tight grip on the state of the AEC’s affairs.”
This time, however, the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake has revealed the total lack of awareness on the part of the AEC of the seriousness of the problems involving the tsunami, which had long been pointed out, and the stunning absence of real experts among the state-nominated members of the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency. In this vein, former governor Sato charges the central government with having allowed the nation’s nuclear power administration to drift under “a system totally lacking accountability,” as these shortfalls clearly indicate.
Sato is also sharply critical of the government and TEPCO for what he describes as “their institutional flaws,” allowing those involved to lie to, or deceive, the governor and citizens alike in an excess of zeal to emphasize the safety of nuclear power.
It is undeniable that TEPCO has fully taken advantage of the government, using its lack of accountability as a shield to hide its own lack of responsibility.
In order to fully utilize the nation’s superb nuclear power technology, support the economy, and make a significant contribution to global energy supplies, what is most urgently needed is an all-out national effort to nurture high-quality human resources as methodically as possible. At this juncture, it is all the more important to recognize that the F1 disaster was beyond any doubt a man-made disaster.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 478 in the September 29, 2011 issue of The Weekly Shincho)