Japanese Utilities and Gov’t Regulators Dismiss Tragic Nuclear History

Unsafe Procedures, Radiation Releases, as Talks of Japan’s Nuclear Future Come Into Contention


Is Japan’s nuclear power industry too reliant on people who really don’t know what they are doing and too caught up with preventing the public from remembering it’s controversial history?

On March 11th, 2011 the first nuclear emergency was declared in Japan after the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The recent series of events at Japanese nuclear power stations are by no means isolated incidents, and the questions raised about safety and regulation are not new either.

Japan imported its first commercial nuclear power plant from the UK in 1966, and completed its first indigenous reactors in 1970. While some herald Japan for its “good reputation” for public safety, the nuclear industry in Japan has also been a barometer of disgrace for the Japanese nation.

The core issues about Japan’s nuclear program still remain more than 40 years after inception. Throughout the decades, nuclear accidents have had little impact on government policy, while disasters in the island country continue increasing in size and danger to public health.

While on one hand loudly declaring as long as the proper safeguards are in place nuclear power is safe, clean, and exceptionally powerful, utilities and regulators have knowingly shirked the responsibility to follow through, even to carry out routine safety checks.

If Japanese citizens are only now realizing the re-emerging patterns of denial, cover-up and bureaucratic collusion between the industry and the government, it should only reaffirm the public understanding of Japan’s dangerous nuclear program.

Many articles and books have been published regarding the discovery of corruption, collusion, and cover-ups by plant operators and officials throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Whistle-blowers alerted that there were a number of accidents and reactor malfunctions or defects at Japanese nuclear power stations.  Not only did operators know about the problems, but also the data provided was doctored, and that was only the tip of the nuclear iceberg.

These accidents included the Tokaimura nuclear accident, the Mihama steam explosion,  the Chūetsu offshore earthquake aftermath, and cover-ups after accidents at the Monju reactor, to name a few.  Construction of new plants increased during the 1980s and 1990s, but in the mid-1990s the Japanese nuclear agenda was plagued by a string of scandals that continued to be uncovered for the next decade.

Escalating sentiments are not addressed

In 1999 after a series of nuclear mishaps in Japan, one local resident told reporters, “We are really worried, I hope they will come up with a system where information is made public and we, the residents, can live here without worrying.”

After the Tokaimura scandal a newspaper survey showed 74% of people were cautious about Japan’s nuclear power development, but at the time the government stated it was still committed to nuclear power.

Currently some polls suggest that over 80% of Japanese now say they are anti-nuclear and distrust government information on radiation.

In Japans society, and other international populations, there is an awareness that many citizens shattered confidence in nuclear safety could potentially never be restored.  The Japanese government and regulating agencies have barely started the task of rebuilding that trust, but the tradition of calming public contention is still in place. 

Nuclear energy budget has increased in leaps and bounds since conception

The birth of the Japanese nuclear program was in 1954, when Japan designated 230 Million yen for nuclear energy.  By 2008, the Japanese ministries and agencies were requesting an increase in the budget that came to over 490 Billion Yen, in an effort to push Japans nuclear development to an unparalleled height in its national history.

In contrast, Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) reported TEPCO compensation claims alone could total $122.5 billion–134.8 billion over the next two years.

The battle to recover public support

Recently current Japanese Prime Minister Kan made comments regarding a nuclear free future for the Japanese energy system.  Prime Minister Kan’s statement was quickly clarified by other officials who were fast to point out that there was no immediate plan to end nuclear power in Japan, and that any restrictions would be set in place over an extended period of time.

After the Tokaimura accident, the Japanese Government faced growing international criticism as to the handling of the disaster.  In 1999, former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi (Term July 30, 1998 –  April 5, 2000) pledged to tighten safeguards in the country’s nuclear facilities following an accident at a fuel processing facility caused by a breach in safety protocol. “To come up with full preventative measures is the way to recover the people’s trust towards nuclear energy,” he said.

The Ibaraki government ordered JCO to suspend all uranium processing activities until the safety of the plant was guaranteed.To many experts at the time it appeared that the authorities were at best out of touch, and at worst negligent when it came to safety provisions at the plant.

In lieu of the evidence, Japanese authorities were instructed to carry out safety checks, and review of safety measures in the nuclear power industry should be reviewed in order to prevent future accidents. Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, said checks would be made at all nuclear facilities around the country, and pledged to tighten the safeguards.

In December of the same year, the Japanese parliament passed new legislation making it the head of government’s responsibility to immediately set up a crisis management centre to order evacuations and other safety measures during a major nuclear disaster. The legislation required nuclear facility operators to immediately report any accidents to the prime minister, who was able to call on Japan’s Self-Defence Forces if necessary.

However a few years later, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (Term April 26, 2001 – November 19, 2003) began escalating rhetoric around the future of nuclear power in Japan.  Prime Minister Koizumi stated the Japanese government will make ‘more strenuous’ efforts to win the public understanding of the need for nuclear energy. 

There can be no apology when actions don’t change

Secrecy appears to be a repeating characteristic of the nuclear industry, especially in Japan, where citizens are reluctant to openly disagree on things.  The Japanese social system supports the secretive culture, making information easier to be concealed for a period of time.

This plague of incidents, cover-ups, and scandals have undermined the confidence in the safety of this form of energy production. The Japanese Government has been repeatedly criticised for lax supervision and slow response to nuclear disasters.

The IAEA which only inspects nuclear power plants upon request, or acceptance of an official offer, was repeatedly declined access throughout the 80s and 90s.  After limited access to some reactors, an IAEA expert in 2008 at a meeting of the G8’s Nuclear Safety and Security Group, warned that earthquakes could pose a ‘serious problem’ for Japan’s nuclear power stations.

The Japanese Government understood that after the devastating events and revelations of the 1990s there was a need to rebuild public trust.  This effort was always stained by accusations that the government was failing even to look after residents living close to nuclear power stations, let alone the national population.

Nuclear ‘slaves’ or ‘gypsies’ are at risk

In 1999 it was discovered that many utilities were knowingly putting the lives of untrained temporary workers at risk.  Employment brokers, or temporary recruiters were seeking out and hiring a growing number of homeless people to perform dangerous jobs like cleaning nuclear reactors.  Workers were allowed to work a shift at one nuclear power plant, and then work additional hours later the same day at a different reactor station, exposing themselves to more deadly radiation.

The use of temporary workers in nuclear plants is regarded as a sensitive issue and has not been widely reported in Japan. Many are too frightened to speak because of shady conspirators that are involved in recruiting the homeless and other temporary workers.

Matsumoto-san, a homeless man living in a park in Tokyo, did a cleaning job for three months at a nuclear plant in Tokaimura near where an accident took place. He says he was exposed to dangerous conditions: “We were sweeping up dust and had bleepers which went off when the radiation levels were too high, but the supervisors told us not to worry, even though they were bleeping. I got out when I started to feel ill.” The company where Matsumoto-san worked has refused to pay compensation, saying there was no proof his illness was work related.

Yukoo Fujita, a professor of physics at Keio University spent years warning temporary workers by putting up posters outside plants, and helping people who later fall sick. He describes their employment as “a modern form of slavery”. Many workers get only superficial safety training and have no idea how dangerous their jobs are, according to insiders throughout the industry.

Over half of Japanese Utilities have admitted to falsifying reports for over 30 years

The future of nuclear power in Japan could potentially cause even more discontent among international groups and inhibit further production and development of nuclear power.  The international outcry echo a compilation of undermined confidence and anger, and is often combated with misleading or at least, badly represented figures, produced in an effort to reduce that anxiety.

One glaring weakness of Japan’s nuclear regulators is that they only step in when disaster strikes, and even then their response time and accuracy of information has come under scrutiny. Many incidents have gone unreported for years, this fact was confirmed in 2006.

NISA demanded that power companies reveal any unreported safety breaches by the end of March 2007 that had not already been uncovered. Most were not overly surprised when 7 of Japan’s 12 public utilities admitted they had falsified records for over three decades.

Shika Nuclear Power Plant – Hokuriku Electric Power Company

Shika Nuclear Power Plant in Ishikawa

One example of cover-up that was revealed in March 2007, is when Hokuriku Electric Power Company produced information showing that in June of 1999 during an inspection, a criticality event had occurred at Reactor 1 of the Shika Nuclear Power Plant.

This event had been covered-up and wasn’t made known to the public or Japanese government.  On June 5, 2007, the committee chairman of the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission inspected the control rod housing, drive mechanisms and evaluated that the event was due to cutting corners.

While the cover-up was going on, local residents filed their lawsuit in 1999 against Hokuriku Electric Power Company, complaining that the newly constructed Reactor 2 had not been built to a high enough standard to withstand earthquakes, but by the time the Kanazawa district court had weighed the evidence, the plant had already been built. 

Despite scandals, cover-ups and ever-changing leadership, utilities deny decline in safety

A government study published just after the Tokaimura accident in 1999 said 15 out of 17 nuclear facilities in Japan had inadequate safety measures. The study, by the Labour Ministry, said, in particular, that not enough individual health checks for radiation exposure were being carried out, despite being required by law.

After the Tokaimura Accident in 1999, it was estimated that at least 700 people working in the Japanese nuclear industry may have died from exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.  It is fairly self evident that there was insufficient attention to safety leading up to the criticality event.

In April 2003, after admitting that maintenance reports among other records were falsified, and launching an internal investigation, TEPCO denied that the procedural lapses caused any serious decline in safety.

“I deeply regret the incident and cannot apologise enough for it,” Tepco president Nobuya Minami told a news conference. Mr Minami resigned October of 2003, and the utilitie’s chairman, vice-president and two advisers were also forced to resign in shame.

Following the resignation of top officials, and the guilty verdict of the ‘nuclear six’ from the Tokaimura incident, TEPCO and the Japanese government eagerly pushed for early resumption of 10 nuclear reactors, stating that consumer demands needed to be met. 

Tokaimura Incident – JCO

Before 2000, Japan’s most infamous accident had occurred in Tokaimura, when criticality was triggered after three untrained workers mixed 8 times the normal amount of uranium in a steel bucket. Over 400 residents around the station were contaminated after workers caused a criticality event by using illegal standards for uranium processing.

Over 50 people were treated for exposure to excessive radiation after the incident including, 45 plant workers, 3 fire fighters, and 7 citizens who worked at a nearby golf course. According to the Japanese Science and Technology Agency, tests on two of those closest to the leak suggest they were subjected to radiation “equivalent to exposure to an atomic bomb” 116 of the other workers received lesser doses of 1 mSv or greater.

Initially the management at JCO, the private firm that ran the Tokaimura plant placed the blame on it’s workers for ignoring protocols. The officials stated the workers had caused the accident by pouring too much uranium into the tank. 

JCO President Koji Kitani knelt down on the ground to apologize in front of residents who took shelter in a community center after the disaster.

Many skeptics pointed out that the company was using a system in which the creation of a “critical mass” of material was not thought possible to occur. Investigative reporting showed that one of the workers had been exposed to far higher levels of radiation than the hospital officials had initially reported. It was also reported that the workers had never received proper training.

Despite official claims, safety design flaws have been covered up before –

In August of 2004, cracks in the concrete at Hamaoka 4 were found. This was revealed after a whistle-blower reported that faulty inspections was standard practice. In addition, the testimony of a former technician responsible for the safety designs at the Hamaoka nuclear power plants in Shizuoka prefecture revealed how test data was manipulated and falsified when the first reactors were built.

In the 2005 court case, one of the technicians responsible for the safety designs at the Hamaoka nuclear power plants in Shizuoka prefecture explained why he altered safety data to conceal design flaws. “I had children and there was not enough time”, he said.

Over 30 years ago he worked at Toshiba, which built the reactors for Chubu Electric Power Company. He had been prosecuted for falsifying and altering safety testing data related to earthquake tests.  The retired technician described how test data was simply pulled out of a report, so that the construction could go ahead. Had the data been made public, there is no way that the reactor could have been built.

The case revealed that when various vibrational tests were performed, data showed that the design could not withstand a major earthquake. Several attempts were made to strengthen the design, but tests still showed problems. In spite of this, the construction went ahead and the building, Hamaoka’s second reactor, was completed in 1971.

Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant – Chubu Electric Power Company

The Capital That Was Erased By Radiation’ is a book authored by Minoru Konagaya, published in 2006. The author used a model of the Chernobyl accident to show that meltdowns at Hamaoka’s five reactors could kill as many as 8 million people, and bring the national economy to a standstill.

“Within eight hours Japan’s strong westerly winds would carry a radiation cloud over Tokyo,” says Konagaya, 36, a civil engineer who was part of a parliamentary delegation that investigated a failure of Hamaoka’s emergency cooling system in 2001.The plant has been designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.5. Sand hills of up to 15 metres (49 ft) height provide defence against a tsunami of up to 8 metres (26 ft) high, but Hamaoka currently lacks a concrete sea barrier.

Reported incidents at Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant

1991, April 4 – Unit 3 reactor coolant supply lowered, automatic SCRAM

2001, November 7 – Unit 1 pipe burst accident

2001, November 9 – Unit 1 coolant leak accident

2002- In an independent inspection, it was discovered that 16 unique signs of cracks in steam pipes were known by the utility but failed to report to the prefecture level authorities.

2002, May 24 – Unit 2 water leak

2004, February 21 – Unit 2 outbreak of fire in room above turbine room.

2004, August – Unit 4 problem with fabrication of data by utility.

2005, November 4 – Unit 1 pipe leak incident

2005, November 16 – Unit 3 outside pipe leak due to corrosion

2005, November 16 – Unit 1 spent fuel pool had foreign matter detected in it

2006, June – Unit 5 damage to turbine blades

2007, March – Utility admitted to 14 cases of unfair business practices

2009, August 11 – Units 4 and 5 (the only ones operating) automatically shut down due to an earthquake

2011, May 6 – Prime minister Naoto Kan orders Units 4 and 5 to be shut down and Unit 3 not to be restarted

2011, May 15 – 400 tons of seawater were found to have leaked into the Unit 5 turbine steam condenser

2011, May 20 – Damaged pipes were located in the Unit 5 condenser and the operator estimated that about 5 tons of seawater may have entered the reactor itself.

Lessons unlearned are destined to be repeated –

While multiple utilities were falsifying data and hiding safety risks, until the Great Tohoku Earthquake in March of 2001, they also publicly insisted that they over-engineered their reactors to withstand every conceivable tremor.  The 1995 Kobe earthquake was frequently used as a key example. 

Satoshi Fujino, public relations officer at the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo, has said the roots of the problems in the Japanese nuclear industry are two-fold: inadequacy in government regulation and a culture within the industry’s management of covering up mistakes. Mr Fujino says the safety appraisal process, which takes place before a power plant is even built, was extremely lax, while the inspections carried out afterwards are “very haphazard”.

Mihama Nuclear Power Plant – Kansai Nuclear Power Company

Contrary to industry claims, at the Mihama plant in Fukui prefecture in 2004, maintenance and safety standards appear to have been anything but over-engineered or safe.  Five workers were killed and seven others injured by a blast of steam and boiling water from a leak in the cooling pipe.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that police believe workers may have been neglecting safety standards in order to prepare for their upcoming annual official inspection. Kepco, which manages the Mihama plant, was forced to admit after the accident that it had not properly checked the pipe which burst since it was installed in 1976.

Some articles published after the Mihama incident reminded the public that those who “try to take advantage” of the accident to steer public opinion against Japan’s nuclear program were misleading the citizens, and that the accident should not be regarded as “serious”. Despite the deaths, there was no radiation leakage and therefore the IAEA was unlikely to react strongly.

“Accident at Mihama nuclear plant not linked to nuclear fuel programme” argued a headline in the mass-circulation daily Sankei Shimbun.

“We should not fan people’s fears about the safety of the nuclear power plants by overreacting to the accident. The accident should not affect operations in Japan’s other nuclear plants”, stated a headline in Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper.

Yoshihiro Kinugasa

One controversial official in Japan’s nuclear history is Yoshihiro Kinugasa who was a leading seismologist in Japan. In 1988, prior to a licensing inspection at the facility run by Japan Nuclear Fuel Service Ltd., Kinugasa advised that the word “active” be deleted from a description of the fault running under the site, a company document showed.  This ultimately resulted in his parliament officially reprimanding his superiors.

Kinugasa’s career continued during the 1990s on Japan’s nuclear licensing panel, which signed off on a pre-construction study of the Kashiwazaki site.  The report identified three fault lines, each less than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) long, or just under the length regulators deemed threatening.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is owned and operated by TEPCO, and is the world’s first ABWR nuclear power plant. It is the largest nuclear generating station in the world by net electrical power rating.

A decade later, Kinugasa was on the regulatory committee that approved a second reactor at Hokuriku Electric’s Shika plant after the nearby faults were estimated at less than 10 kilometers long.

In 1999 citizens in Shika filed a lawsuit to close the plant’s second reactor. “We didn’t trust the utility’s claim that the faults were separate,” says Tetsuya Tanaka, 64, a representative of the 135 plaintiffs. “They were putting money before safety.”

In 2005, Kinugasa was no longer working for the regulatory committee, by this time he had crossed the proverbial aisle and published a study with Hokuriku Electric engineers that rebutted neighbors’ claims the plant was unsafe. The report ignored an administrative convention used by government geologists that said small faults within five kilometers of each other should be considered a single fissure.

Despite the report, in March 2006 the court ordered the company to shut down its second reactor, citing “inadequacy” in seismic design. While an appeal to the Nagoya High Court kept the plant running, it was closed four months later after cracks were found in its turbines.

“Kinugasa was virtually the main expert specializing in fault-line study on the NISA licensing committee,” says Haruo Yamazaki, a Tokyo Metropolitan University professor who once sat on the nuclear safety commission panel that reviewed license approvals by the frontline regulator. “Ten years ago there were very few fault-line specialists.”

Haruo Yamazaki

“Either Kinugasa’s incompetent or he did it on purpose,” said Hiroshima Institute of Technology seismologist Takashi Nakata, “I think he did it intentionally, trying to match the finding to the magic number.”

“The same people are making the rules, doing the surveys and signing off on the inspections,” says Nakata, who sits on the science ministry’s earthquake survey committee. “The regulators just rubber-stamp the utilities’ reports.”

Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant – Tokyo Electric Power Company

In 2007, an earthquake hit in the morning near Tepco’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa power station in Niigata prefecture. Workers onsite battled a fire in a transformer, while contaminated water from a cooling pool found its way into the sea through drains because sealing plugs were never installed. After the quake, Trade Minister Akira Amari said regulators hadn’t properly reviewed Tokyo Electric’s geological survey when they approved the site in 1974.

A former city councilman was quoted “The thing we had been warning against for 33 years had happened,” says Takemoto, 57, whose house is 3 kilometers from the power station’s seven reactors. “All of our houses had collapsed, but we were more worried about the plant.”

On Dec. 7 2007, Tokyo Electric, Japan’s biggest power company, said it knew from a 2003 study that an undersea fault near Kashiwazaki Kariwa could cause a magnitude 7 earthquake.

Reported Incidents at Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant

In May 2000, Unit 6 had to be shut down as a precautionary measure when increased concentrations of Iodine were detected in the coolant loop.

On June 12, 2004, the vacuum in the condenser in Unit 1 began to decrease. The operators reduced power, and the condenser pressure stabilized so the unit was run at the lower power of 800 MW for some time.

On February 4, 2005, Unit 1 was manually shut down due to leakage of steam in the lower floor of the turbine room.

On July 3, 2005, the Unit 5 reactor tripped by a turbine trip caused by a decreased vacuum in the condenser (turbine trip occurs to protect the turbine).

On May 26, 2006, Tepco and the Chūbu Electric Power Company submitted a report about cracking in the hafnium control blades.

On July 12, 2006, it was discovered that a worker was exposed to radiation above the 0.8 millisievert legal limit in one day, receiving 1.03 millisieverts.

On July 16, 2007, the 2007 Chūetsu offshore earthquake caused severe damage to parts of the plant, resulting in small radioactive releases, complete shutdown and seismic upgrades.

On September 20, 2007, a temporary air conditioner on the roof of the plant caught fire, but there was no danger of a radioactive leak.

On May 22, 2008, TEPCO announced that earthquake resistance standards needed to be increased by a factor of five and work to reinforce the reactors would begin in June.

Prime Minister Koizumi brought the Kashiwazaki station into the public eye in 2001, when he rejected TEPCO plans to use MOX fuel at the nuclear power plant. A spokesman for Tepco, Takashi Kurita, said the company would not continue with its plan to introduce MOX fuel against local residents’ wishes, but added that Tepco would keep trying to win them round.

MOX Nuclear Fuel In Japan

After France decided in 1997 to close its Superphoenix reactor following a series of problems, Japan was the only nation still developing fast-breeder nuclear reactors.  The high costs along with the problems that have plagued the Monju reactor since 1995, put pressure on the industry to find an alternative fuel source.A combination of uranium and plutonium recycled from spent nuclear fuel called MOX fuel was promoted.  The MOX fuel would be recycled at plants in France and the UK, and then shipped back to Japan. 

Tokaimura Power Plant

Prior to March 2011, the town of Tokaimura was most known for being the site of one of Japans worst reported nuclear accidents, but there had been multiple incidents that had effected the workers and local community.

In March of 1997, a fire broke out at Tokaimura power plant which exposed 37 workers to radiation.  In August of the same year 2,000 steel barrels were also found leaking radioactive waste.

In September of 1999, at another facility close to the uranium processing plant, 35 workers were contaminated by radiation after a fire was not extinguished properly and caused an explosion. 

It would eventually be described as a “classic case of human error”, but over 400 residents of Tokaimura were contaminated after workers caused a criticality event by using illegal standards for uranium processing. 

The cause of the leak – detected at 1035 local time (0135GMT) – was not immediately made known.  The head of the company’s Tokyo office, Makoto Ujihara, said the workers told other staff at the plant that “they saw a blue flame rising from the fuel” and complained of nausea.

Two of the workers, Hisashi Ouchi and Masato Shinohara, later died in hospital. Shojiro Matsuura, chairman of the government’s Nuclear Safety Commission, said that “the workers did not know the dangers of criticality and did not observe the rules.”

“We are still trying to find what exactly happened but we believe the uranium reached the critical point”, the spokesman for JCO was quoted as saying shortly after the disaster.

The accident occurred as workers were preparing a small batch of fuel for the Jōyō experimental fast breeder reactor.  Standard procedures were to use up to 2.3 kg of uranium in each procedure to prevent a criticality accident.  The facts that emerged proved workers were mixing 25 pounds of enriched uranium, instead of the normal 5 pounds.  Not only was the uranium was also of a higher grade than had been used before, but workers had attempted to use steel buckets to mix a uranium solution instead of the government-prescribed safety vessels.

A self-sustaining chain reaction occurred, the intense heat lead to a build-up of pressure inside of the container and resulted in an explosion.  The building was not designed to contain radiation, and radioactive gasses were blasted into the atmosphere.

Plant manager Makoto Ujihara briefing the press about the accident

Radiation levels at the Tokaimura nuclear fuel-proecessing plant were 15,000 times higher than normal. Three workers were taken to the hospital, upon arrival one of the workers was suffering from continuous vomiting, already showing symptoms of radiation exposure. Around the stricken plant, hundreds of residents were evacuated. Greenpeace, said the number of people in exposed to radiation during the accident was almost certainly higher than official estimates.

Authorities were forced to warn thousands of residents around the nuclear station to stay indoors, avoid locally grown vegetables and wash off any rain that falls on them. “The situation is one our country has never experienced,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka at an emergency news conference disclosing, There are concerns about radiation in the surrounding areas.”

Apology from JCO President after releasing data regarding radiation leak

Greenpeace pointed out that the accident came just one day before a UK-flagged ship was expected to deliver 495 pounds of mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel to a plant in Takahama, central Japan.  “Today’s accident at Tokaimura confirms our fears – the entire safety culture in Japan is in crisis and the use of dangerous plutonium in reactors here will only increase the probability of a nuclear catastrophe,” Greenpeace International activist Shaun Burnie said at the time.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi heavily criticised the Tokyo-based JCO company, hightlighting the carelessness and poor training of workers, and the lack of proper emergency procedures.

After the disaster, Prime Minister Obuchi visited the affected areas, and as the visit was happening, Japanese police raided JCO offices gathering information that would later be used against the utility.  After the raid, in lieu of public humiliation and further legal actions, JCO was forced to admit it had changed the procedure manual without proper government approval, in an attempt to speed up processing.

Kyodo news agency, quoting unnamed Science and Technology Agency sources, said the government planned to revoke JCO’s business licence “due to the seriousness of the accident”. Hideki Motoki of the Tokyo-based JCO attempted to distract the public by stating that the company knew its standards did not meet legal requirements, but it was not certain whether the violations had caused the accident.

Hisashi Ouchi was the first worker to die from radiation after the Tokaimura disaster.  The cause was multiple organ failure after Mr Ouchi received 17,000 times the normal annual exposure to radiation.

Experts said the violations provided an example of the facility’s insufficient attention to safety. The revelation adds to the catalogue of incompetence and lax standards being uncovered by the investigation into the accident.

Residents living in areas surrounding the accident site responded by expressing their fears and angers related largely to the lack and quality of information the authorities produced.

English teacher Toshio Tadokura says he heard nothing until the vice chancellor of his college made an announcement over the public address system six hours after the leak happened. “I am very, very angry,” he told the media. “So many people including myself might have been under the effect of nuclear for nearly six hours until we got the first official advice to shut windows.” He continued, “I don’t know what the effect will be on my health. The television has given us a number to call for health advice, but I can’t get through.”

Dr Philip Badzell, a UK citizen living close to the nuclear site heard the news via friends in England.  “The first news we received about the situation was at 4am when a concerned friend called from London. We live about 50km away from the plant and so far have received no warnings and very little news.”

Ninja, a 24 year old man who lives 300km from the plant, expressed the anxiety of many about the lack of knowledge over how safe people really are. “I am concerned the way Japanese government treats the issue in public. Are we really safe or not? If you know anything about what is happening here, please let me know.”

Neil Smith, a 25 year old resident, expressed concern about the accuracy of local reports. “Whereas the photographic coverage you provided showed clearly damage to the roof of the building where the accident happened, photos in today’s Japanese newspapers and indeed aerial shots on this evening’s NHK news showed absolutely no damage. Presumably they were all using old photographs.”

The Japanese government pressed criminal charges against the operators of the uranium processing plant where the nuclear disaster at Tokaimura occurred. Six people were arrested in connection with the accident, all of them were employees at the time of the accident. They include former plant manager Kenzo Koshijima and a deputy manager in charge of processing operations.

All six workers were found responsible for the disaster at Tokaimura. Kenzo Koshijima was fined $4,000 and given a three-year jail sentence. The others, including an injured survivor of the accident, were given suspended prison terms of up to three years.

Former JCO President Hiroharu Kitani was charged with violating nuclear plant regulations.  In March of 2000, Japanese authorities revoked JCO’s operating license.

Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant

The Tsuruga nuclear power plant has also seen its share of incidents, a reactor coolant had leaked in December of 1995, leading to the reactor closure for a year, similarly no radioactive leak was reported in that accident either.

On July 13th, 1999 the world was reminded of the dangers of nuclear power after a pipe broke leaking 90 tonnes of radioactive water.  The reactor involved with the breakdown started operating in 1987.

The radiation levels in the leaked water was 11,500 times the safety limits, a substantial increase from the initially reported 250 times the limit.  The huge gap between the released figures led many to speculate a cover-up had been taking place.

Upon further inspection,  Japan Atomic Power Company discovered an 8 cm-long crack in the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant causing the flood of radioactive water in the facility.

The pipe was a part of a device used to remove impurities from the primary cooling water and control its temperature.  The coolant water would become radioactive due to its direct contact with the nuclear reactor.

Tsuruga No 2 Reactor

Even after the reactor was shut down, the officials were alarmed when the radioactive water continued to pour out.  After 14 tense hours shutting down operations after the discovery, the room was finally cool enough for workers to enter, investigate, and stop the leak.

Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Kaoru Yosano said the ministry would investigate and get to the bottom of it. “Whether this accident occurred because of an unexpected fault or because of the layout of the plant, we need to conduct a thorough investigation to find out the cause,” he said.  At the time, Japan’s nuclear industry about one-third of the nations electricity. 

Mihami Nuclear Power Plant – Fukui Prefecture

In August of 2004, steam and boiling water was found spewing from a turbine near the number three reactor. At least four casualties were initially reported, and over 10 people found suffering from burns. At least one of the injured is in a critical condition, with 80% burns. Kansai Electric Power Company, which operates the Mihama plant, said it had stopped power generation at 3:28pm (0628 GMT), and was still investigating the cause of the accident.

Mihama Nuclear Power Plant

Japan’s Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, who is responsible for nuclear policy, apologised on Tuesday for the accident.  “We must not undermine trust in nuclear energy policy. We would like to investigate the cause and make sure it does not happen again,” he said.

Kepco deputy plant manager Akira Kokado said the company had been told by private contractors in April 2003 that the cooling pipes that burst needed a thorough safety check and was a safety threat. It was later confirmed that the cooling pipe had dangerously corroded from its original 10mm thickness down to just 1.4mm. The pipe was not checked again because it was not expected to corrode so quickly, and it had not been thoroughly checked since 1976, the utility reported.

“We conducted visual inspections, but never made ultrasonic tests, which can measure the thickness of a steel pipe,” said spokesman Haruo Nakano.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency cited investigation sources as saying that police believe Kepco may have neglected safety standards by allowing workers to prepare for an annual inspection while the plant was still running.

Police investigators were accompanied by regional and national authorities as they arrived to inspect the plant on Tuesday, said police spokesman Fuminaga Miyamoto. “Police are investigating the company on suspicion of corporate negligence resulting in death,” he said.

The utility insisted that no radiation leaked from the plant, and there was no danger to the surrounding inhabitants. Officials said a lack of cooling water caused the accident, forcing steam to escape from the turbines.

At Mihama itself, a leak of cooling water from the number two reactor in 1991 spurred a Japanese campaign against building further reactors.

Ohi Nuclear Power Plant – Fuikui

In March 2006, a fire broke out injuring two people, but initial reports stated there was no leak of radiation. The Ohi plant is run by Kansai Electric Power Co (Kepco). Although the waste disposal facility is situated between two reactors, Kepco said the generators were not affected and were operating normally. Kepco said the blaze appeared to have begun in an area where ash is packed into steel barrels.

Ohi Nuclear Power Plant

Kepco’s Ikuo Muramatsu said the smoke had delayed fire-fighters getting to the blaze for two hours. A prefectural official said the waste facility contained very low-level radioactive waste.

“There was no impact on the environment and we have verified that the employees did not come in contact with unusual radiation,” Reuters news agency quoted the unnamed official as saying.

Shika Nuclear Power Plant

In March of 2006, a court ordered Japan’s then-newest nuclear reactor to be shut down, due to known safety risks. Residents filed a lawsuit in 1999, when construction first started on the country’s second largest reactor.

The local residents said the Number 2 reactor was constructed using outdated government safety guidelines. They claimed they would be in constant danger of major accidents because it is near a fault line, where government experts say a major quake with a magnitude of 7.6 could strike.

On June 18, 1999 during an inspection, an emergency control rod insertion was to be performed on Unit 1. One rod was to be inserted into the reactor, however, due to improper following of the procedure, instead of one rod inserting, 3 rods withdrew. For the next 15 minutes, the reactor was in a dangerous criticality state. This event was not revealed until March 15, 2007, since it was covered up in the records.

A lower court had ordered the entire plant to be shut down, but that decision was later overturned by Nagoya’s high court. The utility put in a request to the Ishikawa prefectural government and the town of Shika for the restart of unit 1. The unit returned to power on May 11, 2009 and resumed commercial operation on May 13.

Japanese Power Utilities


Chūbu Electric Power Company (CHUDEN)

Chūgoku Electric Power Company (Energia)

Hokkaidō Electric Power Company (HEPCO)

Hokuriku Electric Power Company (RIKUDEN)

Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO)

Kyūshū Electric Power Company (Kyūshū Electric)

Shikoku Electric Power Company (YONDEN)

Tōhoku Electric Power Company (Tōhoku Electric)

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)

Some accidents of note include:

1981: almost 300 workers were exposed to excessive levels of radiation after a fuel rod ruptured during repairs at the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant.

December 1995: the fast breeder Monju Nuclear Power Plant sodium leak. State-run operator Donen was found to have concealed videotape footage that showed extensive damage to the reactor.

March 1997: the Tokaimura nuclear reprocessing plant fire and explosion, northeast of Tokyo. 37 workers were exposed to low doses of radiation. Donen later acknowledged it had initially suppressed information about the fire.

1999: a fuel loading system malfunctioned at a nuclear plant in the Fukui Prefecture and set off an uncontrolled nuclear reaction and explosion.

September 1999: the criticality accident at the Tokai fuel fabrication facility. Hundreds of people were exposed to radiation, three workers received doses above legal limits of whom two later died.

2000: Three Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives were forced to quit after the company in 1989 ordered an employee to edit out footage showing cracks in nuclear plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators.

August 2002: a widespread falsification scandal starting in that led to the shut down of all Tokyo Electric Power Company’s 17 nuclear reactors; Tokyo Electric’s officials had falsified inspection records and attempted to hide cracks in reactor vessel shrouds in 13 of its 17 units.

2002: Two workers were exposed to a small amount of radiation and suffered minor burns during a fire at Onagawa Nuclear Power Station in northern Japan.

9 August 2004: four workers were killed after a steam explosion at the Mihama-3 station; the subsequent investigation revealed a serious lack in systematic inspection in Japanese nuclear plants, which led to a massive inspection program.

2006: A small amount of radioactive steam was released at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and it escaped the compound.

16 July 2007: a severe earthquake (measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale) hit the region where Tokyo Electric’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is located and radioactive water spilled into the Sea of Japan; as of March 2009, all of the reactors remain shut down for damage verification and repairs; the plant with seven units was the largest single nuclear power station in the world.

Lucas Whitefield Hixson is Nuclear Researcher in Chicago, Illinois in USA.

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