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Fear and fury in shadow of Japan’s damaged nuclear giant

by : David McNeill
Sunday July 22, 2007 - 10:34

By David McNeill in Kashiwazaki

Published: 21 July 2007

One wonders what the pitch was: building the planet’s largest nuclear power plant on one of its most seismically unstable plots of real estate.

Yet, somehow here the plant squats on the outskirts of this town of 93,000 people, a seven-reactor, 8,200 megawatt monster, ringed by roads that are cracked and buckled from this week’s deadly earthquake.

Inside, in the seconds after the quake - which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale - struck under the sea just 12 miles away, pipes burst, drums of radioactive waste toppled and monitors stopped working. A fire broke out and burnt for two hours, and 1,200 litres of contaminated water sloshed into the sea.

When Tsunehisa Katsumata, the president of Tokyo Electric (Tepco), the utility giant that runs the plant, surveyed the damage, he reportedly called it "a mess".

Those reactors are now idle, threatening power shortages throughout the peak energy-demanding summer months and forcing the Trade minister, Akira Amari, to request yesterday that business users cut electricity consumption.

Hiroshi Aida, the mayor of Kashiwazaki, invoked a little-used emergency order to shut them down because he considered them "a threat to the safety of the public". He then sent cars equipped with loudspeakers around the town to reassure everyone he had been "tough" with Tepco. Some said he wasn’t tough enough.

"I wish the plant wasn’t here," lamented a local resident, Koji Yamada. "But now that it is we have to live with it and hope the government keeps us safe."

The locals have argued about its merits since it was announced amid a blaze of publicity and national pride in 1969. Demonstrations, petitions and court cases were a regular feature of life here as the reactors went online between 1985 and 1997. But now the most common local reaction to questions about the plant is shikata-ga-nai, - It can’t be helped. "Most people who live here keep a wary eye on the plant, the way they would a dangerous neighbour," says Paul Woodcock, a Briton who teaches in the town. "They just hope it stays calm."

Over the years, a total of $2bn (£1bn) in government money has been pumped into Kashiwazaki, estimates Mr Aida. "The plant contributes a lot to the area, but we only want it here if it can guarantee the safety of the people here," he says. "We must be assured of this before it is reopened."

Privately, the Mayor is said to be furious at Tepco’s bungling after the quake. Japan’s biggest power company initially failed to report the leak, then admitted that it was 50 per cent bigger than previously announced. The company has a history of cover-ups. Earlier this year, it admitted falsifying inspection data 200 times at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and other reactors going back decades.

This week it emerged that the International Atomic Energy Agency warned the plant managers two years ago that its fire-prevention measures were inadequate. After Monday’s quake, Mr Amari warned that such scandals "could make people lose their trust in nuclear power". He has given the country’s top nuclear power companies a week to tighten up plant operations.

It is not difficult to understand his concern. Japan has 55 of the world’s 440-odd operating reactors, which supply about one-third of the country’s energy needs, and another 11 in construction or planned. The government’s national energy policy aims to bury the "Hiroshima and Nagasaki syndrome" and raise the proportion of nuclear-generated electricity to 40 per cent. Japan aims, in the words of one commentator, to become "a nuclear superstate". (One of the byproducts of this policy is an enormous and growing stock of plutonium - 45 tonnes, or enough to build thousands of the bombs that levelled Nagasaki in 1945. By 2020, Japan could have 145 tonnes of plutonium - more than in the US nuclear arsenal, according to one recent estimate.)

That puts the world’s second-largest economy at odds with much of the developed world. The contribution of nuclear power to global energy demand fell by one per cent to 16 per cent in the decade to 2003. While the US, Britain and much of Europe froze their nuclear programmes, resource-poor Japan kept building, driven by the dream of energy self-sufficiency. But that strategy has now been dealt a huge blow.

Japanese nuclear plants are designed to withstand a 6.5 quake, but the construction regulations are 25 years old and new rules issued this year recommended an upgrade to 6.7.

Insiders suggest that a quake resistance of 7.0. The new regulations may demand that geologists identify quake faults active up to 130,000 years ago, a reaction to the stunning revelation that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant sat atop an active fault.

"The logic of nuclear power is that the companies want to reduce the costs of earthquake-resistant design as much as possible," says the anti-nuclear academic Professor Tetsuji Imanaka. "That leaves a lot of room for underestimating the risks."

As the quake hit on Monday, a gravestone in a village a few miles away toppled and smashed. The grave belonged to the former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s postwar master of pork-barrel politics and an early proponent of energy self-sufficiency.

To add to the richly symbolic turn of events, Tanaka helped broker the Kashiwazaki plant. "Perhaps Tanaka-san now regrets his decision," said one local.

http://news.independent.co.uk/world...



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