NUCLEAR REGULATORY BODY ACCOUNTABLE FOR MAJOR BLACKOUT IN HOKKAIDO
A magnitude-7 earthquake hit pre-dawn Hokkaido on September 6, wreaking havoc across Japan’s northernmost island. As of this writing (September 9), 42 citizens are reported dead and one missing.
A massive blackout triggered by the quake increased the damage, affecting all of Hokkaido. The Chitose New International Airport was shut down, as well as all trains, industrial plants, and commodity distribution centers. All water service utilizing hydraulic motors was also lost.
Life-support systems, dialysis machines, and infant incubators at hospitals were also affected. Emergency generators did not last long, as the capacity and fuel of their tanks are regulated by the government’s Fire Services Act. A prolonged power failure threatened to seriously endanger human life. A very precarious situation developed across the island.
Less than two hours after the quake, around 5 a.m., a fire station in Sapporo received a call that a newborn baby girl was in critical condition at a city hospital after an oxygen inhaler stopped. The city office informed the media that the infant had been transferred to another hospital for emergency treatment. As of this moment, however, there has not been any report that she has survived. One cannot but express grave concern about the baby’s wellbeing.
Those suffering from kidney disease are seriously affected if dialysis is unavailable for three straight days. The power failure in Hokkaido put the lives of many kidney patients in jeopardy, with water and power having been lost.
Against such a background, HBC (Hokkaido Broadcasting Co.) reported at 7:27 p.m. the following day on deaths “attributable to the blackout.” Some two hours later, at 9:45 p.m., UHB (Hokkaido Bunka Broadcasting Co.) reported similar news:
“A male company employee in his 40s in Shibetsu-cho, eastern Hokkaido, and a self-employed man in his 70s in Kamifurano-cho, central Hokkaido, died of carbon monoxide poisoning on the night of September 6 while using gasoline engine generators.” Their undeserved deaths clearly resulted from the blackout.
Humans were not the only victims of the blackout. Take dairy farming, a key industry of Hokkaido, for instance. Although power is being gradually restored in Hokkaido, there is a high possibility that anti-mastitis vaccines for milk cows have been almost totally ruined during the past three days. Susceptible to heat, most vaccines, including those for human diseases, must constantly be stored at low temperatures—between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (35.6 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Abe Administration’s Remarkable Crisis Management
Cows must be milked on the same hour every day, without which their udders fill fast, followed by sharp pains and high temperatures. One out of every two milk cow is said to contract mastitis. In the worst case, these cows must be disposed of. Even if the cows are cured, there follows a mandatory “repose time” of one week to ten days during which delivery of fresh milk is strictly forbidden.
Dealing with mastitis under normal circumstances is damaging enough to dairy farmers. But this time far more losses may result, as the blackout presumably has ruined vast amounts of anti-mastitis vaccines stored without refrigeration.
The massive power failure a heavy blow to the entire social infrastructure of Hokkaido. In a sense, it taught us Japanese a lesson as to how fragile modern Japan is—a highly-advanced “convenient society” in which even the opening and closing of a toilet seat lid, or the timing of flushing the toilet, is electrically operated. Perhaps we need a little more time to determine exactly how much real damage the blackout has inflicted on our society.
The primary cause of the devastating damage is the energy policy the government has applied to Hokkaido, causing the prefecture to be overly dependent on a single thermal power station.
Before the blackout, the Tomato-Atsuma thermal power station (capacity: 1,650 mw), operated by Hokkaido Electric Co., had met nearly half the power demand of the prefecture with roughly 2.9 million households. Because Tomato-Atsuma was shut down, the demand and supply balance collapsed all at once, leading to a massive blackout. Commented Professor Tadashi Narabayashi, a specially-appointed professor of Tokyo Institute of Technology and a renowned nuclear physicist:
“The distribution of electricity requires perfect balance between demand and supply. Otherwise, what is known as ‘the line frequency’ is disrupted, causing a breakdown of generators and other electric devices. A massive power failure will ensue in the worst case.”
The breakdown at Komato-Atsuma caused electricity supply to drop at one stroke, collapsing the demand-supply balance. The utility company had no choice but to shut down its power stations at several other locations one after another. Why did the thermal power station come to a halt in the first place? Professor Narabayashi explained further:
“Thermal power stations are actually quite vulnerable to earthquakes. They are not as resilient as nuclear reactors, which are rigidly reinforced with aseismic strengthening devices, with nuclear fuel assemblies securely stored inside thick, steel reactor pressure tanks. At thermal power stations, ‘heat transfer tubes’ made of stainless steel, aimed at releasing heat from the boilers, are hung vertically dozens of meters over generators in order to prevent ‘thermal expansion’ of the tubes.
“This structure is prone to powerful earthquakes, such as the one that occurred directly underneath the island prefecture this time. At Tomato-Atsuma, the heat transfer tubes for Units 1 and 2 boilers were damaged by the vertical vibrations from the quake, spraying out high-temperature, high-pressure vapor. In the case of Unit 4, a fire occurred in the turbine, shooting up a pillar of fire. Recovery will take longer than one week that engineers initially had thought.”
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acted swiftly to cope with the crisis in Hokkaido, unlike the Naoto Kan administration of the Democratic Party of Japan which had failed to effectively face up to the catastrophe following the megaquake of March 11, 2011.
Abe promptly took action, ordering power generation restarted as quickly as possible at all of Hokkaido Electric’s thermal and hydraulic power stations, resuming power supply to practically all households at amazing speed. Although the government is currently urging users to still reduce the use of electricity, the administration deserves to be given high marks for its crisis management.
Why Not Turn to Nuclear Power Generation?
And yet the administration regrettably leaves a pertinent issue unresolved: why not utilize another potentially large source of power for Hokkaido, the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant (capacity: 2,070 mw)?
Tomari has an output larger than Tomato-Atsuma. Although Tomari temporarily lost external power sources in the quake, emergency generators were put to use immediately. If this nuclear power plant had been in operation, it is quite possible the massive blackout could have been avoided. A possible restart of Tomari, intact when the March 11 quake struck but suspended 14 months after the Fukushima disaster, should at least be taken up for discussion as part of the government’s effort to secure a more stable and balanced distribution of electricity in Hokkaido.
The failure of the government’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) to restart Tomari must be put down to intellectual laziness inexcusable for such a regulatory body composed of supposed experts.
Tomari’s operations were suspended for a periodic inspection on May 5, 2012 when the Democratic administration established the NRA, appointing Shunichi Tanaka its first chairman. The NRA worked out new regulatory standards for screening, implementing new safety inspections at the nation’s 50-odd nuclear power stations. Initially, the NRA stated “about six months” would be enough to complete the inspections.
But the agency could not determine the final numerical target for each new standard and they further committed the folly of seeking public comment after each safety inspection was completed. The conservative mass-circulation daily Yomiuri Shimbun criticized the agency in its editorial dated February 22, 2014: “By incorporating this absurd process, the NRA has made further delays in a decision inevitable.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been similarly critical of the NRA. In a report submitted to the Japanese government dated April 23, 2016, IAEA cautioned: “The Nuclear Regulatory Agency is still at the preliminary stage of its evolution in terms of human resources, management system, and especially organizational culture.”
Despite such harsh criticism NRA has refused to change, still engaging today in a futile back-and-forth debate over whether or not there are faults underneath Tomari. The ongoing debate is expected to last another two years, according to sources.
I cannot but hold NRA members, who are intellectually lazy, incompetent, and irresponsible, accountable for the deaths of the two hapless men I earlier referred to. The NRA has held off the crucial decision on the fate of the Tomari nuclear power station for far too long. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 819 in the September 20, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)