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Japan Tests Nuclear Plant Under Watchful IAEA

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Japan, the world leader in nuclear power generation, lacks natural resources required to sustain itself, especially in terms of power generation. Japan was once totally dependent on oil imports for its energy sources. In order to reduce its import bill and to attain stability in terms of power generation, Japan started to employ nuclear power for its electric power needs. The 1974 world oil shock also contributed to this policy change.

Japan’s Tryst with Nuclear Power Generation

Japan started its first nuclear generation plant in 1954. According to government reports, it now has 54 nuclear generation plants operating at various locations spread across the country, accounting for 30 to 35 percent of its total energy requirements. The Japanese government operates its nuclear power plants under the aegis of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). The organization had provisioned for the geographic conditions inherent in the region and included features in the nuclear power plants for mild earthquake resistance, which still stand vulnerable to earth quakes of higher magnitude.

Fukushima Disaster a Setback to Nuclear Power Generation in Japan

The March 11th 2011, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power disaster caused by a major earthquake measuring a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale was a major blow to Japanese authorities, as it led to large scale leakage of nuclear radiations into the sea, soil and surrounding atmosphere. Though media reports commended the government for its swift evacuation of the 160,000 residents around the plant while declaring a nuclear emergency, it did not fail to report that were significant numbers of people exposed to higher nuclear radiations than internationally permissible limits.

Causes of the disaster

On the day of the disaster, reactors number 1, 2, and 3 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant were in operation, whereas reactors 4, 5 and 6 had been laid to rest for routine inspection purpose. On being hit by the earthquake the three reactors in action developed complications as the generators were at their peak, so that halting them at that point of time using the immersion of control rods and downpour of water from helicopter instantly was not possible. The result was the explosion in the reactor due to accumulation of hydrogen gas, leading to the collapse of the central dome of the reactor. The same occurred with 1, 2 and 3 reactors, but reactor 1 was more severely damaged, leading to leakage of nuclear radiation in the near vicinity. A similar pattern of explosion resulted in reactor 3 as well. Considering the effect of radiation leakage from reactors 1 and 3, operators started pumping sea water to instantly cool reactor 2. However, their attempts failed and resulted in the explosion and severe destruction of the reactor. The resulting fire spread to the main electricity power supply and backup generators, making it harder still for operators to bring the situation under normalcy. The situation worsened as reactor 4 continued to burn for two long hours. This resulted in the used up fuel storage pool at unit reactor 4 catching fire and nuclear radiation being released directly into the atmosphere, according to IAEA sources.

Soon after the incident, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called for an emergency meeting and declared all nuclear power plants across the country to be shut down. This was adopted as a precautionary measure, as seismic reports suggested possibility of successive earthquakes of similar magnitude to occur in the next 7 days.

Ban on Nuclear Power Plants Causes Severe Power Supply Shortage

The sudden halt in power supply resulted in a rapid shortage of power across the country, forcing the government to revisit its ban on nuclear power plants. This prompted the adoption of limited nuclear power generation, leading to the authorization to start 3 out of the existing 54 nuclear power plants to begin generation. The government then immediately commenced its emergency reconstruction program to secure the destroyed nuclear power plant. However, media continued to report news of protests against the government move to restart the Fukushima nuclear power plant following completion of repairs. People opine that Japan has perhaps failed to take lessons from previous nuclear accidents and that the government continues to ignore public opinion in its restarting of the plant.

IAEA Invited to Evaluate Tests of Power Plant

Government news reports quote that the Japanese government, after the construction program in early January at Fukushima Daiichi power plant by its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), invited the Vienna-based IAEA to evaluate stress test at the affected locations and ascertain the safety of the power plants.

As per the request from the Japanese government, a 10-member team headed by James Lyons conducted a detailed examination and reported impressive execution of safety measures. In reports released, the evaluation included, “Stress tests through computer simulations evaluated a nuclear reactor’s buoyancy to severe shocks after a triple meltdown at Fukushima plant since last year’s earthquake and Tsunami.” Lyons and his team members, following their detailed testing, concluded that, “NISA’s instructions to power plants and its review process for the comprehensive safety assessments are generally consistent with IAEA safety standards.”

Protests Continue as Doubts Persist

Nuclear analysts have clearly assessed that the Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster is the world’s worst nuclear calamity, after the Chernobyl incident 25 years ago. And even a year later, thousands of people believe that the region is still unsafe due to high radiation levels.

Despite government reports that NISA officials have successfully completed their first assessment test on two still reactor units located in Oi, western Japan, which can resist high magnitude earthquakes and tsunamis, public opinion is yet to change. The negativity amongst the public, media reports suggest, was also boosted by two members of NISA stating that “the stress tests passed on the reactors were within a restricted range and failed to confirm that reactors are as yet safe,” and also that, “The IAEA visit was purely a public relations task.”

Reports from Professor Hiromitsu Ino of Tokyo University and Masashi Goto, a former nuclear plant design engineer, were quoted as saying that, “It is obvious that a visit by an international organization advocating nuclear power is part of a political agenda that is built into a story already finished in advance.”

News reports also noted that Japan’s power supply would be drastically affected from April of this year onwards, if nuclear power plants were not to commence functioning. They pointed out that the Trade and Industry minister, Yukio Edano, said that, “The nation can survive free of power cuts in summer without nuclear power. “

The prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, considers that although Japan is trying to advance in power generation out of renewable energy sources, there is also a clear need to maintain a number of reactors alternatively. By 2030, they had aimed to convene 50 percent of electricity power to the country, but were compelled to call these plans off due to the Fukushima Daiichi crisis.

Political analyst Atsuo Itol was quoted by news reports as saying, “The public mistrust towards the government’s handling of information over the nuclear accident is high and I don’t think the review will change that.

Government Revamps Nuclear Power Generation Policies

In an attempt to boost public opinion with respect to nuclear power generation, the Japanese cabinet has approved new legislation that delinks it from the Trade and Industry ministry, as it had failed to recognize the danger signals raised by nuclear power plants.

The amendments, according to government reports, will now fix the operational lifetime of nuclear reactors to 40 years, as well as an additional 20 years if they then pass further safety tests. Yet one of the reactor units in Fukushima Daiichi had not undergone service since 41 years ago. Media reports quoted the Environmental Minister, Goshi Hosono, as saying, “We need to form a new organization urgently, considering the critical gaze of the public and the international community.”

Reports also noted that the proposed new team would not only be comprised of private sector and independent members, but would for the first time disseminate information for public consumption. Assuring the public, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the head of the parliamentary committee investigating the causes of the Fukushima crisis, told reporters that, “The myth that nuclear power was absolutely safe is a theme we will explore. We need to find out how such a mindset developed.”

Despite the international endorsement by UN inspectors on NISA complying with tests and safest aspects of the nuclear power station, challenges continue to exist for the Japanese government in the road ahead. NISA experts themselves are not backing the full safety factor of the power plants, and this is building public outrage over their restarting.

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