Sat, 09 Oct 1999

Japan pursues hazardous technology

This is the second of two parts by The Jakarta Post Asia correspondent Harvey Stockwin.

HONG KONG (JP): As one nuclear specialist has pointed out, one way in which nuclear accidents have been greatly reduced worldwide is by getting machines to preclude likely human error. Known risks are eliminated by being made technically impossible. Since the handling of more than 2.4 kilograms of uranium oxide poses the risk of setting off a nuclear chain reaction, the machines mixing the uranium should be structured to impose this limitation automatically.

So one conclusion, suggested by this latest accident, is that either Japanese machinery had not been designed in this way or the three workers concerned in the accident, for some reason or another, had managed to override the restraint.

But this possibility presents problems. Japanese would not normally do such an individualistic act as to override -- unless they had been ordered to do so.

Then again, this is the second nuclear accident to happen at Tokaimura. The fact that, in March 1997, there was an explosion and a fire there, as a result of which 37 workers were irradiated should have made the plant management extra careful, extra meticulous to see that it never happened again.

But it did happen again -- and they were not meticulous. Such Japanese carelessness in the face of nuclear danger remains a real puzzlement.

To further increase the mystery, in August 1997 further carelessness at the Tokaimura reprocessing plant came to light when it was revealed that stored radioactive waste there had been leaking low-level radiation over a 30-year period.

Almost incredibly, the indications so far are that the machinery at Tokaimura did provide for a regulated mixing of a limited amount of uranium -- but that even the working manual at the plant allowed this procedure to be circumvented.

While the full story of the nuclear chain reaction accidentally set off on Sept. 30 is not yet available -- and the Japanese government appears in no hurry to produce it --- it is at least clear that something more than worker's inefficiency was to blame.

The big question about the accident has been how three workers came to mix 16 kg of uranium (or uranium dioxide), seven and a half times the safety limitation of 2.4 kg, with a nitric acid solution in a mixing tank.

Now it appears that the three workers committed this error because they were filling the tank after moving the uranium around in stainless steel buckets -- instead of through the required apparatus -- some cylinders which would have measured the correct, and safe, amount into the mix.

The three workers cannot give their side of the story because all three are hospitalized under intensive care after suffering massive doses of radiation, when the chain reaction began and radiation rose as high as 17,000 times the normal level.

Altogether 55 persons employed at the plant were exposed to the high degree of radioactivity generated by the chain reaction, which lasted 18 hours before being extinguished.

But it is already clear that, just as one would expect, the Japanese workers were more or less going by the book. The operations manual put out by JCO Co. Ltd, the company running the plant, had specifically allowed these bucket transfers, which circumvented the measuring cylinders, and had done so for the previous four years.

According to an anonymous JCO official quoted by The Washington Post: "We had an internal manual which we did not present to the government and which called for using buckets. We knew the practice was illegal but it was faster".

Surprisingly, the Japanese government failed to discover this violation of its own approved procedures, thereby raising further doubts about the thoroughness of its inspections of nuclear facilities.

On Oct. 3, the government belatedly launched a full-scale investigation of the Tokaimura nuclear accident. Discovering whether or not there has been lax government supervision will be one of its tasks.

Ironically, according to a Kyodo news agency report, JCO, a subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd, had earlier stated to the government that there was no need to prepare for an accident like that which happened at Tokaimura because their safety precautions would prevent it.

That was written before the company drew up a manual which permitted the circumvention of those precautions. Equally important, the government, when licensing the plant in 1993, evidently took the original JCO assurance at face value and did not impose strict precautionary regulations of its own.

These lapses are worrying enough but an additional cause for concern is that the Tokaimura plant was connected to Japan's continued pursuit of a nuclear technology which other advanced nuclear nations have abandoned.

Thus the bureaucracy has decreed that Japan, a country subject to constant earthquakes, should nevertheless try to become even more dependent on nuclear power stations than it is already.

Japan currently gets a little over one-third of its energy from nuclear power stations. Many of these are ageing and will one day have to be replaced either by new nuclear or conventional power stations. Japanese bureaucrats have insisted that "fast breeder nuclear reactors" are both technologically feasible and commercially viable --- even though many believe they are neither.

Fast breeder reactors (FBRs) are ones which, in theory, can generate electricity while producing more fuel than they consume. Were that feasible, a way would have to be found to dispose of all the plutonium, with its lengthy radioactive life-span, which the FBRs would produce.

There is an experimental fast breeder at Tokaimura called Joyo which means "everlasting sun" -- and there are already suggestions that the haste to handle uranium at Tokaimura, to do things "faster", may have been connected with Joyo.

Joyo FBR has been in operation, as far as is known without incident, since 1978. Joyo led to the building of a prototype FBR power station at Monju which leaked sodium, and low-level radiation, four months after it went into operation in 1995.

At present, according to one Japanese report "work is concentrated on counter measures against sodium leakage". But Monju remains shut and there are no known plans as yet to reopen it.

It is strategically obvious why bureaucratic hubris drives Japan towards developing fast breeder reactors against all the odds. Were they successful, Japan would free itself from dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and from dependence on foreign energy imports.

Japanese politicians have been shaken by the severity of this latest accident --- which forced Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to delay a cabinet reshuffle. The politicians are in danger of falling foul of irate Japanese voters for whom this is almost certainly one nuclear accident too many.

But the larger question is whether the politicians should intervene to bring the bureaucrats down to earth.

A government which cannot insist on its own regulations being adopted in uranium processing manuals by private nuclear companies is hardly in a good position to grapple with the far more hazardous technology of fast breeder reactors.