How Japan's nuclear industry ignored the disaster to come

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Following the major earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11th, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe caused by overheating at the country's damaged Fukushima nuclear plant increases hour by hour. The crisis has highlighted the perilous number of nuclear installations established in a country regularly rocked by quakes. Mathieu Gaulène reports on the history of Japan's nuclear energy programme and the past incidents that so clearly announced a disaster to come.

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Following the major earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11th, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe caused by overheating at the country's damaged Fukushima nuclear plant increases hour by hour. The crisis has highlighted the perilous number of nuclear installations established on sites regularly rocked by quakes, and where the authorities have for decades ignored warnings of the significant dangers. Mathieu Gaulène reports on the history of Japan's nuclear energy programme, the third largest in the world, and the past incidents that so clearly announced a disaster to come.

The location of Japan's 17 nuclear power plants and their 55 reactors:

 

 

Click here to enlarge Nuclear Power Facilities of Japan map.

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Japan was hardly the most obvious candidate to build a nuclear power industry, following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Yet it rushed to set up a nuclear energy research programme after the Allied forces had lifted their prohibition in 1952, and the government officially launched the scheme in 1955.

The country is now the world's third largest generator of nuclear power after the United States and France. Its nuclear industry provides 30% of its electricity1 and 12% of its primary energy needs2. Electricity generation is dominated by ten regional electricity generating companies, including Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the biggest, which operates the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Fukushima plants.

Although these companies are all privately owned, the government plays a key role in the industry through the powerful Ministry of Trade and Industry, known as MITI. The ministry's goal is to supply half Japan's electricity from nuclear power, following the example of France.

But Japan has had an uneasy relationship with nuclear power right from the beginning of the programme.

Contrary to popular belief, the country's anti-nuclear movement did not grow from the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but was a reaction to contamination of a fishing boat by an American nuclear test off Bikini Atoll in 1954. Rumours that radioactive tuna were being distributed around markets in the country created widespread panic and the controversy is still remembered today.

Three anti-nuclear organisations were set up in the early days: Gensuikyô, supported by the communists; Gensuikin, supported by the socialists, and Kakkinkaigi, linked to the political right. But all of them focused on military issues while putting civil nuclear power to one side. Kakkinkaigi even openly approved of it.

In the 1960s, MITI organised the first topographical and geographical studies of coastal areas to identify suitable sites for future nuclear installations, taking into account the presence of water for cooling the reactor core, seismic risk and the strength of local civil society. The importance of this last factor can be gauged from the various reports from the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), one of the lobbies financed by the backers of nuclear power, which always state whether fishing cooperatives are present on the chosen sites.

Fishermen have in fact been among the most tenacious opponents of the nuclear industry, along with farmers and women. They fear not only the potential health impact of nuclear power stations but also the impact on their business if there were to be any contamination.

A coherent anti-nuclear movement began to emerge from the 1970s with the formation of numerous organisations such as the Citizen's Nuclear Information Centre (CNIC), a grouping of scientists opposed to nuclear power that provides an alternative scientific viewpoint. The movement gained strength after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986.

From the end of the 1980s most opinion polls in the country have shown clearly that the Japanese are opposed to nuclear power. But the industry's opponents have never managed to force a change in energy policy, even though local campaigns have sometimes managed to rein in MITI's plans.

Japan, like most countries using nuclear power, chose an American technology, the Light Water Reactor (LWR), for its plants3. But instead of trying to improve this technology, the country focused its research on new technologies. This resulted in a certain lack of interest in the established power stations, where serious security and maintenance problems appeared.

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1: The Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) put the figure at 31% in 2005. Source: Fiscal 2006: Annual Energy Report, 2006.

2: According to Samuele Furfari, Le Monde et l'Energie (The World and Energy), 2008.

3: Four Japanese firms share the nuclear market:Mitsubishi, Toshiba and Hitachibuild power plants while Fuji Electric makes alternators and turbines. Mitsubishi signed with the American company Westinghouse in 1984 to build Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) under licence. Hitachi and Toshiba, which supply Tepco, signed a research agreement with General Electric for a new reactor type, the Boil Water Reactor (BWR). PWRs and BWRs are both forms of LWR.

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Freelance journalist Mathieu Gaulène is a specialist writer about Japon, and has contributed articles to Le Monde, InaGlobal, and Nonfiction.fr. The history of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement and the opposition to the Rokkasho-mura retreatment plant was the subject of his 2009 master's thesis for the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po). During his research for this work, he met with numerous representatives of the nuclear energy industry, (from Areva, JNFL, JAIF, JAERO and FEPC), anti-nuclear activists, and members of the community living close to the Rokkasho-mura retreatment plant.

  • In 1995 a major sodium leak at Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor caused a huge fire. Click on the ‘Prolonger’ tab at top-of-page to see video footage of the incident, recorded on December 9th 1995 and publicly broadcast for the first time in 2008 by News for the People in Japan (NPJ).