Mon, Mar 14, 2011 - Page 5 News List

JAPAN DISASTER: Risks to reactors in quake-prone areas ignored: academic

The Guardian, LONDON

The timing of Friday’s near--nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi could not have been more appropriate. In only a few weeks the world will mark the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear plant disaster ever — at Chernobyl in Ukraine. A major core meltdown released a deadly cloud of radioactive material over Europe and gave the name Chernobyl a terrible resonance.

Over the weekend, it became clear that the name Fukushima came perilously close to achieving a similar notoriety. However, the real embarrassment for the Japanese government is not so much the nature of the accident, but the fact it is clear it was warned long ago about the risks it faced in building nuclear plants in areas of intense seismic activity.

Several years ago, the seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko warned, specifically, that such an accident was highly likely to occur. Nuclear power plants in Japan have a “fundamental vulnerability” to major earthquakes, Katsuhiko said in 2007.

Katsuhiko, who is professor of urban safety at Kobe University, has highlighted three incidents at reactors between 2005 and 2007. Atomic plants at Onagawa, Shika and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa were all struck by earthquakes that triggered tremors stronger than those to which the reactor had been designed to survive.

In the case of the incident at the Kashiwazaki reactor in northwestern Japan, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in July 2007 set off a fire that blazed for two hours and allowed radioactive water to leak from the plant. No action was taken in the wake of any of these incidents, however, despite Katsuhiko’s warning at the time that the nation’s reactors had “fatal flaws” in their design.

Japan is the world’s third--largest nuclear power user, with 53 reactors that provide 34.5 percent of its electricity, and there are plans to increase provision to 50 percent by 2030. Unfortunately, its nuclear industry is bedeviled with controversy. In 2002 the president of the country’s largest power utility was forced to resign after he and other senior officials were suspected of falsifying plant safety records.

Nor is the nature of its reactor planning inducing much comfort.

The trouble is, Katsuhiko says, that Japan began building up its atomic energy system 40 years ago, when seismic activity in the country was comparatively low. This affected the designs of plants, which were not built to robust enough standards, the seismologist says.

Since then, Japan has experienced more serious quakes as tension has built up on tectonic plates, culminating in Friday’s devastating earthquake. The result was an incident that came perilously close to triggering a nuclear meltdown.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has announced it is now urgently seeking details of what happened at Fukushima.

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