Disaster in Japan日本灾难,钚与米奇鼠
Plutonium and Mickey Mouse钚与米奇鼠
Japan’s nuclear crisis drags on, exposing profound failures both at the company and in national energy policy
IT IS daylight, but the darkness inside the headquarters of the world’s biggest privately owned electricity company is sepulchral. Officials, heads bowed, apologise in whispers for the trouble Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has caused. Their 66-year-old boss, Masataka Shimizu, went into hospital on March 30th, suffering from hypertension; he has been absent for much of the past three weeks. In the gloom TEPCO’s logo on the walls of the building resembles a mutant Mickey Mouse.
About 250km away, at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant, hundreds of TEPCO employees and some subcontractors are trying to prevent further leaks of radioactive material from three damaged nuclear reactors and various sources of spent fuel. Their conditions are close to intolerable. At times, they have been exposed to more radiation in a few hours than they are supposed to endure in a year. Their rations are biscuits and canned food. They have a blanket each, and sleep on the floor. Some have lost homes and families to the tsunami that left 27,690 dead or missing. TEPCO sees them as soldiers. “We don’t think they are heroes. They are doing what they should,” an official says.
TEPCO is getting most of the blame for Japan’s nuclear disaster. For much of the past three weeks, the authorities have held out hopes that they could regain control by reconnecting cooling systems damaged by the tsunami. These are supposed to prevent fuel from melting and rupturing the protective steel case of the reactor vessels.
This week the discovery of large pools of highly radioactive water and raised levels of radiation in seawater near the plant has shown how far the authorities really are from regaining control. Previous releases of radioactive iodine and caesium had shown that material from the core of at least one reactor has been released. The new findings suggest that the systems designed to contain such releases may have been badly compromised. The tanks into which contaminated water is being pumped will eventually fill up. And conditions for workers are getting more dangerous, which means that fixing up the cooling systems and hooking up vital measuring instruments takes longer.
The plant is so woefully damaged that TEPCO officials cannot say when the crisis will be over. Levels of radiation have mostly been subsiding, though unevenly spread. But reports on March 31st revealed that radiation in a village 40km away exceeded criteria for evacuation and the UN’s nuclear watchdog suggested the government might widen the 20km evacuation zone. All this has compounded worries that the area round the plant may remain unsafe for years.
There is plenty of blame to go around. TEPCO wrongly measured radiated waters in one of the turbine halls at 10m times normal level, rather than the still-alarming 100,000 times. Subcontractors working for TEPCO reportedly complained about the safety of their workers on site. Three electricians accidentally stepped into a dangerous puddle on March 24th. In one sign of unpreparedness, the gauge that measured the radioactivity of water afterwards could not go higher than 1,000 millisieverts an hour, about the level at which radiation becomes an immediate threat to health.
Tensions between TEPCO and the government of Naoto Kan have risen since the prime minister installed crisis managers inside the utility’s head office. Privately, officials have suggested TEPCO may have been slow to use seawater to cool the reactors because it wanted to save its plant—though the company denies this. Publicly, Mr Kan has lambasted the company’s tsunami-preparedness. Koichiro Gemba, a cabinet minister, has left open the possibility that TEPCO would be nationalised, though this was perhaps to reassure voters in his Fukushima district that they would be adequately compensated. Other officials were non-committal about state intervention, but TEPCO shares have fallen by over 75% since March 11th.
Outside experts say that repeated flaws in the company’s nuclear operations have denuded its board of specialists in atomic power. Mr Shimizu is the third successive president to have been hit by a nuclear accident. “This company is really rotten to the core,” says Kenichi Ohmae, a management consultant and former nuclear engineer. He blames TEPCO for storing too much spent fuel on the site; for placing too many reactors in the same place (there are six in the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and seven in a nuclear complex on an earthquake fault-line in Niigata); and for not having enough varied sources of power.
But the problems run deeper than TEPCO. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) oversees the regulator and is responsible for safety issues. But it also promotes the nuclear industry. Reportedly, Mr Kan is considering altering this. Nuclear scientists, says Mr Ohmae, are mostly sponsored by utilities, compromising their independence. He describes them as “Christmas-tree decorations” on government safety commissions.
The problems compound one another. Taro Kono, of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), says there is an “unholy triangle” between METI, its affiliated regulator and the nuclear industry. His office notes that Toru Ishida, a former METI energy official, moved straight into a job as senior adviser to TEPCO. Mr Kono also accuses the media of being in the nuclear industry’s pocket, because of lashings of advertising.
Paul Scalise, a TEPCO expert at Temple University’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies in Japan, responds that the demonising happens, in part, so that politicians, bureaucrats and the electorate can avoid blame themselves. He points out that Japan’s embrace of nuclear technology was a national decision, taken after the 1973 oil shock (Japan imports 99% of its oil). But after accidents at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, local people began to take a not-in-my-back-yard attitude. Utilities and the government responded by offering tax incentives, subsidies and other blandishments. The result was some of the highest electricity tariffs in the rich world.
Yet companies like TEPCO have still struggled to build new plants in the teeth of local opposition, Mr Scalise says. That helps explain why so many of its reactors are on single sites. The company stores spent fuel rods on its premises because there is no consensus on where else to put them. Meanwhile, the shortage of capacity means that its margin of excess power has been shrinking for 20 years.
Following the earthquake and tsunami, about 28% of TEPCO’s installed capacity, nuclear and non-nuclear, remains shut down. On March 30th, the government acknowledged the obvious—that it is likely to decommission the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant permanently—and possibly have to cover it to stop radiation leaking out. That would knock out about 1.8% of Japan’s energy capacity. In a model of bad planning, the country’s power-distribution systems in the east and west of the country operate on different frequencies, so it is hard to share electricity between them. Unless damaged thermal-electric capacity is brought back soon and more small gas-fired plants are quickly built, months—perhaps years—of energy shortages loom, with crippling effects on the economy.
All this will be a reason to judge TEPCO severely. But the crisis is exposing the failure of the nation’s energy policy as a whole. Prices are exorbitantly high. Power generation produces more greenhouse gases than the government wants. The country has not achieved its goal of nuclear self-sufficiency by reprocessing spent fuel. And now it has a nuclear disaster on its hands. That is not only TEPCO’s fault. It is Japan’s. If the country wants a more reliable energy strategy, it will have to start by acknowledging its collective failings.