Mon, Nov 12, 2012 - Page 5 News List

Caution urged on Japanese power plant

PRECAUTION:The tectonic geomorphologist said work on the Oi nuclear power plant should be halted as research into the seismic fault under the plant is not conclusive


A commisioner for Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority inspects a fault zone near the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, Japan, on Nov 2.

Photo: AFP

Japan’s only working nuclear power plant sits on what may be a seismic fault in the earth’s crust, a geologist has warned, saying it is “very silly” to allow it to continue operating.

Mitsuhisa Watanabe says the earth’s plates could move underneath the Oi nuclear plant in western Japan, causing a catastrophe to rival last year’s atomic disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant — although some of his colleagues on a nuclear advisory panel disagree.

“It is an active fault. The plates shifted about 120,000 to 130,000 years ago for sure,” Watanabe said.

“In research that I have conducted on active faults in Japan and overseas, structures built above them were all damaged” when they moved and caused an earthquake, he said.

Watanabe, a tectonic geomorphologist, is part of a five-member team tasked by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority with looking into the tectonic situation underneath the plant, where the country’s only working reactors are.

Geomorphology is the study of the evolution and configuration of landforms.

Under government guidelines atomic installations cannot be sited on a fault — the meeting place of two or more of the plates that make up the earth’s crust — if it is still classed as active, that is, one that is known to have moved within the last 130,000 years.

A positive finding would mean regulators must order the suspension of operations at the plant in Fukui Prefecture.

However, other scientists on the panel say it is too early to class it as an “active” fault that might pose a risk to the plant, calling for “a scientifically calm approach.”

The team’s head, Kunihiko Shimazaki, who is also a member of Japan’s nuclear regulatory body, says the geological scarring they can see was probably caused by little more than a long-ago landslide.

Instead of the definitive green light that plant operator Kansai Electric Power Co (KEPCO) was hoping for, the committee last week said only that more work needs to be done.

“It’s desirable for all members to reach a conclusion by consensus,” Shimazaki said.

However, Watanabe, asked if the government should allow KEPCO to continue running the plant at Oi, said: “It would be a very silly option.”

“We would have learned nothing from Fukushima. I’m afraid we would see a repeat [of the disaster] one day,” he said.

He said that the plant could be vulnerable to a sizeable earthquake, which might “cause a very serious problem ... similar to the Fukushima one.”

However, he said that the science thus far is simply not conclusive and that work should halt out of an abundance of caution.

“We are not seeking to decommission the plant,” Watanabe said. “We should first stop operation and then carry out underground investigation thoroughly before reaching a conclusion.”

All of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down in the months after the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, when an earthquake-sparked tsunami knocked out cooling systems and caused meltdowns that scattered radiation over a large area.

Hundreds of thousands were made homeless and tracts of prime agricultural land were left unfarmable.

Despite widespread public fears over the safety of nuclear power, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in June ordered the restarting of reactors at Oi amid fears of a summer power shortage.

That ended a brief nuclear-free period for a country that — until the Fukushima disaster — had relied on atomic power for around a third of its electricity needs.

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