The following news summaries are by Jeff Durbin. They are based mainly on information taken from The Asahi Evening News (AEN), The Daily Yomiuri (DY), and The Japan Times (JT).
Sasaguchi Takaaki, who ran on a platform of letting voters decide whether a nuclear power plant will be built, won the election for mayor in Makimachi. The incumbent had resigned in December in the face of a recall election because he wouldn't hold such a referendum. The town assembly must approve the referendum. (DY 23 Jan)
Japan Nuclear Fuel, the operator of the Rokkasho nuclear facility in Aomori Prefecture, will have to reduce plant capacity because of financial problems. Only one of two projected plutonium reprocessing systems, designed to be a major source of plutonium for Japan's nuclear reactors, will be built. The second component of the facility is a storage center for both low-level and high-level waste. As a result of the changes, Rokkasho will open several years later than the planned 2000. Originally priced at 840 billion yen, the Rokkasho facility will actually cost at least 2 trillion yen. In a January 30 news conference, Japan Nuclear Fuel cited the high cost of safety measures against earthquakes and plane crashes, as well as increased costs for building materials and labor. Japan Nuclear Fuel is a joint company formed by Japan's nine electric power companies. (AEN 23 Jan; JT 2 Feb)
The governor of Aomori Prefecture, Kimura Morio, told the Ministry of International Trade and Industry that the prefecture is willing to host an experimental nuclear reactor. The reactor is a joint project of Japan, the U.S., and members of the European Union. (DY 2 Feb)
In Hiroshima, a 10-person international panel of radiation experts met for the first time. In July it will issue its assessment of radiation effects on atomic bomb survivors, based on research of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. (DY 6 Feb)
Since December 8, when the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture leaked an estimated two to three tons of liquid sodium coolant, scientists and administrators from the national government and from Donen, the semi-governmental corporation that operates the plant, have been busy dealing with the repercussions.
Within the plant, the first step was to remove the sodium, which even after the initial leak continued to react with the air (AEN 14 Dec). Then work commenced to strengthen all pipes and thermometer assemblies (DY 28 Jan). At the same time, engineers continued searching for the small piece of steel from a thermometer casing that had broken in the accident (DY 30 Jan). On February 7, plant workers started to remove the section of pipe where the leak probably occurred. The pipe was sealed off to prevent any sodium inside from reacting with the air (JT 8 Feb). Two days later, engineers removed both the broken-off thermometer casing and the sensor itself, which had been bent back at a 45-degree angle due to the force of the leaking sodium (DY 10 Feb).
At the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute in Ibaraki Prefecture, investigators from the Nuclear Safety Commission examined the thermometer assembly and concluded that it cracked because of metal fatigue brought on by high-frequency vibrations (JT 16 Feb).
At about the same time, on February 15, Donen attempted a re-enactment of the accident, using a deliberately broken temperature sensor positioned in the same way as in the actual accident. Sodium leaked through the sensor, and caught fire when it reached the outside air. After the test, an engineer, referring to Monju, said, "We should have stopped the operation of the reactor sooner" (JT 17 Feb).
Finally, on February 19, the Science and Technology Agency confirmed that the temperature sensor had broken due to metal fatigue. Scientists speculated that the flow of sodium caused the sensor and its casing to oscillate at the same rate, thus increasing the strain on the metal (DY 21 Feb).
Meanwhile, outside the realm of nuclear engineering, the Monju shutdown made waves. The Fukui District Court, along with plaintiffs and defendants, visited the reactor to gather information for a lawsuit filed by a citizens' group that is trying to close down Monju (DY 26 Jan). In addition, four Donen executives may face criminal charges for falsely reporting the circumstances of the sodium leak, including tampering with video records. Public prosecutors in Fukui must decide whether to take up the case (DY 22/24 Feb).
As for assessing blame, a task force of the Science and Technology Agency said the reactor should have been shut down immediately after a fire alarm and detector indicated that a leak had taken place. Instead, operators waited over an hour. The task force also concluded that operators had not received enough emergency training (JT 11 Feb).
The Monju accident has raised doubts about the direction Japan's nuclear program will take. For now, governors from Fukui, Niigata, and Fukushima Prefectures have objected to using plutonium-burning light-water reactors, and consequently the plutonium which was to have been produced by Monju may have no market (AEN 24 Jan).
Donen, the semi-governmental corporation that runs the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, has outlined mistakes it made following the December 8 accident and shutdown. Donen said Monju operators showed poor judgement, and manuals were confusing. It admitted wrong in altering videotapes, and will set up a panel to suggest reforms (JT 29 Feb). According to officials in Fukui Prefecture, operators at Monju were not trained to deal with the type of accident that occurred. They were prepared for the equivalent of "a high-speed car crash," said one official, but not for "accidents that occur at low speeds." Thus, the reactor was not shut down until more than one hour had elapsed, and the air conditioning system stayed on for three hours, which caused sodium compounds to leak over a large area. Operators observed temperature fluctuations in the sodium coolant between 200 and 600 degrees, but had no safety guidelines to help them respond (AEN 29 Feb).
Between January and March of 1997, a shipment of nuclear waste will be delivered from France to Rokkasho plant in Aomori Prefecture. The announcement was made by Japan Nuclear Fuel, the consortium of power companies that runs Rokkasho. The waste came from spent nuclear fuel used in Japanese reactors, and was sent to France for reprocessing. (JT 2 Apr)
Donen, the semi-governmental corporation which also operates Monju, has agreed to remove radioactive tailings from an old uranium mine in Katamo precinct in Tottori Prefecture. The site is now closed to entry, but Katamo residents want the tailings taken away. After 8 years of negotiations with local governments, the parties settled on a disposal site at Ningyo Pass on the border of Tottori and Okayama prefectures. There are 16,000 cubic meters of tailings at the mine; 3000 have been identified as highly radioactive. Donen will remove these 3000 cubic meters of waste and bury it in concrete over the next two years. (JT 7 Apr)
The town of Maki in Niigata Prefecture has scheduled a referendum for August 4 to decide on construction of a nuclear power plant by the Tohoku Electric Power Co. In February, after the town's pro-nuclear mayor resigned under threat of a recall election, the newly elected Takaaki Sasaguchi promised to hold a referendum. The city assembly announced the date on March 21 (JT 22 Mar). Tohoku Electric is being criticized for promoting and organizing bus tours to a nuclear plant 60 kilometers from Maki, in order to demonstrate its safety. Various tour options include a trip to a hotspring and a French-style meal. The tours are scheduled to begin in mid-May and last until late June. Kuwabara Masashi, who represents a citizens' group opposing the plant, says, "The pros and cons of the nuclear power station should be debated squarely without such meddling" (DY 18 Apr).
The Ministry of International Trade and Industry held a public hearing over a proposed nuclear plant in Higashidori-mura, a fishing village in Aomori Prefecture. Two hundred seventy people attended. It was the first public hearing regarding a nuclear plant since 1986. Tohoku Electric Power Co. plans a 1.1 kilowatt plant, and with approval of a government panel construction could start in 1998. Eventually the site is scheduled to have four reactors. (JT 18 Apr)
Monju workers are cutting away coolant pipes to retrieve the 15-centimeter long sheath of the temperature sensor that broke due to metal fatigue, causing a large sodium leak and subsequent plant shutdown on December 8 of last year. They are also busy analyzing other temperature sensors (DY 19 Apr). The Atomic Safety Commission said the accident caused fear and distrust in the Japanese public, and plans to stage roundtable talks to exchange opinions with the public two or three times a month. The opening roundtable will be April 13 in Tsuruga, and the Director of the Science and Technology Agency will attend. The Commission will also organize symposia to put forward its nuclear policies (DY 16 Mar). Meanwhile, over 870,000 people so far have signed a petition calling for debate and consensus on fastbreeder reactors (JT 8 Apr).
A government report on nuclear safety says that nuclear plants must be more thoroughly overhauled when they turn 30 years old. The report, by the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, also says that general maintenance must be improved for all plants regardless of age. Over the next few years the agency will outline specific overhaul steps for older plants. By 2000, the Tsuruga No. 1 reactor and the Mihama No. 1 reactor, among others, will reach their 30th year of operation. (JT 24 Apr)
The Nuclear Safety Commission is debating whether iodine is safe to take in the event of a radiation leak, and the Science and Technology Agency will soon take up the question. A week's supply of iodine is stored around 14 prefectures in Japan for all residents living within 10 kilometers of a nuclear reactor. Non-radioactive iodine in the body is thought to prevent radioactive iodine from being absorbed in the thyroid gland, but some commission members worry about iodine's side effects. Iodine gas can be released in large quantities after a nuclear accident. In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, many children were found to have thyroid cancer. (DY 5 May)
New radiation exposure standards for Japanese nuclear plant workers will go into effect later this year. Current recommended limits are based on a 1977 international standard, though a new international standard was released in 1990. The update takes better account of the cancer risk caused by low-level radiation exposure. Over a 5-year period, acceptable exposure is now considered to be 20 millisieverts per year, compared to 50 per year under the current Japanese standard. Pregnant workers should receive a maximum of 2 millisieverts per year, instead of 10. A 1995 white paper on nuclear safety says Japanese plant workers are dosed with 1 millisievert per year on average. (AEN 21 May)
Kondo Toshiyuki, a former director of Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been named by Prime Minister Hashimoto to be the new head of Donen, the semi-governmental body that operates Monju, the fast-breeder prototype reactor in Fukui Prefecture. Oishi Hiroshi resigned to take responsibility for the December 8 sodium leak, and the subsequent attempt to cover up the severity of the accident. In addition, three top officials of the Science and Technology Agency were reprimanded. Monju is shut down indefinitely (JT 25 May). A Fukui Prefectural official serving on a panel at a Monju symposium said, "This accident has not been taken seriously by experts in Tokyo. But it has affirmed our doubts about the safety of the fast-breeder reactor. I demand a revision of the safety measures and the information disclosure system" (JT 22 Apr).
Fukui District prosecutors continue to question Monju workers as part of a citizens' lawsuit which contends that Donen, the state-run corporation that operates Monju, made false reports following the December 8 accident (JT 7 June). In June, the Science and Technology Agency and Donen simulated the sodium leak and found that if liquid sodium had contacted the concrete floor, a hydrogen explosion could have occurred. A 6-millimeter thick steel plate protected the concrete, but in both the actual accident and the simulation, sodium made holes in the plate. Experimenters did not speculate about the size of the possible explosion (DY 11 June). The manufacturers of the thermal sensor that broke due to metal fatigue, leading to the sodium leak, have admitted a design error. Engineers consulted the standard of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers while they were designing the sensor, but overlooked a crucial aspect (DY 25 May/1 June).
Japan's first commercial nuclear plant will be shut down during a 15-year process starting in March 1998, the Japan Atomic Power Co. announced. The Tokai plant in Ibaraki Prefecture opened in 1966. High maintenance and power generation costs have made the shutdown necessary. Over the first 5 years 16,000 nuclear fuel rods will be removed and sent to the U.K. for reprocessing. Then the area will be closed for 5-10 years until radioactivity subsides enough for workers to finish dismantling the facility. The company says 20,000 tons of radioactive waste will have to be disposed of. (JT 24/25 June)
A planned 1,100 megawatt nuclear facility in Higashidori, northeastern Aomori Prefecture, has been okayed by governor Kimura Tokio, and could start operating in 2005. The governor has instructed Tohoku Electric Power Co. to pay strict attention to safety and provide economic benefit to the community. The Higashidori plant is expected to be submitted to Prime Minister Hashimoto as part of the national power development schedule for fiscal 1996. If completed on time it will be Japan's 55th nuclear power plant; 49 are in operation, and 5 under construction. (JT 20 July; DY 16 July)
In the town of Maki in Niigata Prefecture, 88 percent of the voters turned out for a referendum, and turned down a long-planned nuclear power plant. Nearly 61 percent voted against construction of a reactor by Tohoku Electric Power Co., with 39 percent in favor. The referendum is not legally binding, but the town's mayor, Sasaguchi Takaaki, has promised to respect the vote, and will not sell municipal land to Tohoku Electric on the proposed site. Sasaguchi won a special election in January after the former mayor resigned under pressure of a recall election; the former mayor was preparing to sell the city's plot to Tohoku Electric, and had refused to hold a referendum.
The Maki referendum follows a fierce campaign by both sides, and has set off a chain reaction of speculation over the future of nuclear power in Japan. In addition, other towns may hold similar referendums. Chief Cabinet Secretary Kajiyama Seiroku said the government's policy of promoting nuclear power will not change. "I don't think that the voting was held to ask residents of Maki if nuclear power generation is necessary," he added. "But they voted against providing a site for a nuclear power plant." The referendum has been criticized for being an expression of "local ego" that should not influence national policy. A Tohoku Power official said, "I don't think it's appropriate to hold a referendum on nuclear power plants at the local level. It's a matter that should be discussed at the national level. The result of a referendum in such an isolated area might not be fair." Mayor Sasaguchi counters that the government and power companies "have never tried to create agreement among Japanese citizens on Japan's energy policies," and says, "the people should discuss important issues." Several cities and towns have ordinances calling for referendums on nuclear plants, but Maki's was the first such vote in Japan. Tohoku Electric has been trying to build a plant in Maki since 1969, and the project has been delayed since 1983 because of the land issue. (DY 3/5-6 Aug; JT 4-6 Aug)
The LDP's pro-nuclear plant candidate has won a mayoral election in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture. With a 92 percent turnout, he defeated an anti-nuclear independent candidate 9,356 votes to 7,498. The campaign's top issue was construction of a nuclear plant. The pro-nuclear side promised the plant would bring an economic revival; Suzu's population has been dropping steeply, and revenues cover only 25 percent of its budget (DY 16/20 June). In Mie Prefecture, Nanto's incumbent mayor, who had pledged to stop Chubu Electric Power Co. from building a plant, won re-election. The challenger also opposed the project (JT 6 August).
Japan may be the only remaining choice to host an experimental nuclear reactor developed by the U.S., Japan, Russia, and the European Union. The so-called International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor will test nuclear fusion, and is scheduled to open in 2008. The U.S. has said that it will probably be unable to bear the host country's cost of 500-700 billion yen (4. 5-6.4 billion U.S. dollars at the current exchange rate). Germany, France, and Russia have already indicated they also cannot host the reactor. Japan has not officially agreed, but municipalities in Ibaraki, Aomori, and Hokkaido have volunteered sites. Fusion reactors run not on uranium or plutonium, but on tritium, an isotope of hydrogen which contains two neutrons. (JT 27 Aug)
The mayor of Kushima, Miyazaki Prefecture has announced that if re-elected in November, he will hold a referendum within a year regarding a nuclear plant in the city. Kyushu Electric Power Co. put its plan on hold last December, but the mayor claims that the company has not given up. His November opponent is in favor of the nuclear plant. This would be the second such referendum in Japan, following the one in Maki. (DY/JT 5 Sep)
The head of the environment subcommittee of Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) said in a lecture that Japan must promote nuclear energy to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide. Kano Tokio, who is also an executive of Tokyo Electric, said Japan will probably not meet the U.N. Convention global-warming agreement to hold 2000 carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels. Hydroelectric and other alternative energies should also be pursued, he said. Currently about 28 percent of Japan's energy comes from nuclear plants, and 12 percent from other non-fossil fuel sources. Keidanren also supports comprehensive recycling, improved environmental management and audits for businesses, and environmental oversight for projects overseas. (DY 7 Sep)
Despite the result of the August 4 nuclear referendum in Maki, Niigata Prefecture, International Trade and Industry Minister Tsukahara Shunpei says government plans to build a nuclear plant there have not been abandoned. Based on the non-binding referendum, in which 60 percent of Maki residents opposed a nuclear plant, Mayor Sasaguchi Takaaki has pledged not to sell municipal land to Tohoku Electric Power Co. But the MITI head told reporters, "the mayor has to represent his residents' will, but we have to persuade them once we decide the plant is necessary" (JT 7 Sep). Mayor Sasaguchi paid an official visit to the Natural Resources and Energy Agency to request that Maki's name be struck from the list of proposed nuclear power plants (JT 8 Sep).
Six hundred tons of uranium hexafluoride have been delivered from France by ship to the Rokkasho nuclear facility in Aomori Prefecture. According to the Japan Nuclear Fuel Corp., the consortium of power companies that runs the facility, this was the first sea delivery to Rokkasho. Previous shipments went to the port of Tokyo and were trucked to Aomori; since 1991 there have been 22 overland deliveries from Tokyo. For security reasons the arrival was announced shortly before docking, while the ship passed by Wakayama Prefecture. Fifty containers of uranium were unloaded by crane and transported to Rokkasho. The facility will enrich the uranium to produce fuel for nuclear plants. The consortium said that in future it will deliver uranium by sea once a year, and by land two or three times a year. A citizens' group was on-hand to protest the shipment (JT 15/18 Sep). Aomori District Court officials inspected another part of the Rokkasho nuclear facility, the spent fuel reprocessing plant which is under construction. An anti-nuclear group has filed suit to revoke government authorization for the plant because of safety hazards. Judges and representatives of both sides examined and photographed 21 areas in the plant. Preliminary plant operation will begin in October, and the court agreed with the plaintiffs that inspection must take place beforehand (JT 15 Sep).
With the announcement that Japan's oldest nuclear power plant will close, the long process of decommissioning begins. The Tokai plant in Ibaraki Prefecture opened in 1957, and is scheduled for shutdown in April 1998. It will be the first plant in Japan to be decommissioned. Since 1988 nuclear power companies have been obligated to set aside money for future shutdown costs, and usually about 0.2 yen per kwh is added to consumer electricity bills for the purpose. The Japan Atomic Power Co., a mainly private consortium of utilities, has estimated decommission costs at 25 billion yen, but the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center says the final bill could more than double that amount, because some waste disposal costs are not included. Some 4000 tons of waste has not been categorized, and the government is still determining how to deal with it. Most of the 20,000 tons of low-level waste will be stored in the Rokkasho facility in Aomori Prefecture. Tokai's design, a graphite-moderated gas-cooled reactor, is uncommon, and little is known about dismantling it. Worldwide, only four major reactors have been fully decommissioned, one in Germany and three in the U.S. At Tokai the entire process will take about 15 years. (JT 2 Oct)
The town assembly of Hamaoka in Shizuoka Prefecture has approved a plan by Chubu Electric to build another nuclear power plant, the fifth in the area. Thirteen of 16 assembly member supported the plant. Construction is scheduled to begin in 1999. The plant will be an advanced boiling water reactor with a capacity of 1.3 million kw. Chubu Electric will now hold a public hearing and submit its plan to the national government. In 1993 the company also asked for approval of the No. 5 plant, but citizens were opposed (JT 17 Oct). This time over 3000 Hamaoka residents have signed petitions against the plan, and in favor of a referendum on the issue (Nuke Info Tokyo, Sept/Oct).
In Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Chugoku Electric Power Co. has officially applied for permission to build two advanced boiling water reactors. At present there is only one ABWR in Japan. The company hopes to start construction in 2001. Opposition from fishing unions and other residents is strong, however. One union leader said, "It is arrogant for the company to try to proceed with the plan despite opposition from local people." In addition, an anti-nuclear group is trying to prevent Chugoku Power from acquiring the land it needs (JT 14 Nov). The first advanced boiling water reactor in Japan, the No. 6 reactor in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, began operations on November 7. The No. 7 reactor, also an ABWR, will be tested in December. When fully operating, Kashiwazaki will become the largest nuclear power plant in the world (JT 8 Nov).
Sometime in mid-March another shipment of reprocessed nuclear waste will arrive at the Rokkasho storage facility in Aomori Prefecture. The British-owned "Pacific Teal" left Cherbourg, France on January 13. It carries 20 tons of radioactive waste in 40 stainless steel containers filled with solidified glass and waste. The waste originally came from Japanese reactors and has been processed in La Hague by COGEMA, a state-run French company. According to a French government document leaked to Greenpeace, the ship will go around the southern tip of Africa, head south of Australia and circle up through the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. The route is similar to that of last April's waste shipment to Rokkasho. New Zealand, a declared nuclear-free nation, has approached Japan with its concerns, though the ship may legally pass through the Tasman Sea as long as it stays outside New Zealand's 12-mile wide territorial waters. Greenpeace is alerting other countries along the route and asking them to protest the ship's passage. (JT 15/16 Jan)
Japan has exchanged communiques with Belgium and the European Union in advance of contracting to have MOX produced in Belgium from spent nuclear fuel. The fuel will come from Japanese reactors operated by Tokyo Electric. The utility plans to use the MOX in commercial reactors, following the government's new pluthermal policy (see above stories). MOX production is under the umbrella of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, which must ensure that spent fuel is not used for any other purposes. (JT 11 Feb)
The national government and nuclear industry are trying to persuade prefectural governments and citizens that MOX fuel is suitable for Japanese commercial reactors. The Cabinet and the Federation of Electric Power Companies have decided to promote what is called the pluthermal process. MOX is mixed oxide fuel, a uranium-plutonium combination that until now has not been used in conventional reactors. With the fast-breeder program on hold in the aftermath of the December 1995 Monju accident, burning MOX fuel in light water reactors is an alternative way to use the plutonium in spent fuel. Critics of Japan's pluthermal program, however, say MOX is a riskier fuel than uranium. Monju, Japan's prototype fast-breeder reactor, was a key link in Japan's future nuclear fuel cycle, whereby more plutonium fuel is produced than consumed. If no more fast-breeder reactors are constructed, the plutonium surplus will likely cause concern in Asia over Japan's nuclear weapons capability. The government intends to burn MOX in two reactors, belonging to Kansai and Tokyo Electric, starting in 1999, and in as many as 15 reactors by 2010. Thirty-three percent of Japan's energy comes from nuclear power. (JT 28 Jan; 5/22 Feb)
The Fukui Prefectural Assembly has rejected a government plan to burn MOX fuel in the prefecture's light water reactors, but another meeting will be held when the government makes its formal request for approval. The assembly wants more information about the safety and economics of MOX use, and is waiting for a promised roundtable discussion dealing with Monju, the Fukui fast-breeder prototype that shut down in December 1995 after a major sodium coolant leak (JT 1 Mar). Meanwhile, the president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., Araki Hiroshi, met with Niigata Governor Hirayama Masao to discuss the details of a planned MOX-burning reactor in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa scheduled for 2000. Araki later met local mayors in the area where the plant would be constructed (JT 7 Mar).
The Pacific Teal has brought its 20-ton cargo of waste back to Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture after two months at sea. After arriving at Mutsu-Ogawara port, the waste was trucked seven kilometers to the Rokkasho waste storage facility. It left France on January 13 after the French state company COGEMA processed spent fuel rods from Japanese nuclear plants. The waste has been mixed with glass and is contained in 40 steel canisters. It will be stored at Rokkasho for 30-50 years before being placed in permanent storage underground. About 300-400 people protested the shipment at the port, where 500 riot police were on hand. A radiation leak one week earlier at the Tokai plant has alarmed some local residents. This is the second waste shipment from France to Japan; the first arrived in April 1995. During its trip around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, 20 nations prohibited the Pacific Teal from entering their territorial waters. (JT/DY 19 Mar)