Black smoke rises from a burning electrical transformer near one of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear reactors.
Initially, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said
there was no leak of radioactivity. Then it said there was a small
leak of radioactively contaminated water. Then the size of the
leak turned out to be much larger than originally reported, and the
water was 50 percent more radioactive than they had first said.
Then it came out that hundreds of nuclear waste barrels had fallen
over, with the lids coming off dozens of them. Oh and, it was
revealed that cobalt-60 and chromium-51 was released into the
atmosphere from an exhaust stack.
It's hard to call the residents of Kashiwazaki lucky. Hundreds
were injured by the quake, at least nine have died, thousands are
in emergency shelters. But, if any of the four working reactors
had lost power to their coolant system, it could have gone much
worse. From the
Citizens' Nuclear Information Center:
Even after automatic shutdown, the fuel in the reactor core is
still extremely hot, so it is necessary to maintain a continual
flow of coolant. If it is not maintained, the fuel could melt,
leading to the release of highly radioactive material into the
environment. Under some circumstances, it could also result in an
Despite the potential seriousness of this fire, TEPCO failed to
announce whether the transformer continued to operate, or whether
the emergency generator started up.
According to Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, TEPCO admitted
its disaster response measures did not function successfully, and
that there were only four workers available to extinguish the fire,
which burned for almost two hours.
Sadly, no surprise
The scene at earthquake-ravaged
Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant.
The ground vibrations were more severe than the nuclear plant
was designed to withstand, and there are some indications that a
previously undiscovered fault line runs under the plant. Japan is
one of the world's most earthquake prone countries, and also one of
the most reliant on nuclear power. Not a good combination.
The delay in reporting leaks and spills also comes as no
surprise to industry watchers, but it does seem that Japan's
government may finally be loosing patience with an industry rocked
by scandal for the past decade.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, "They raised the alert
too late. I have sent stern instructions that such alerts must be
raised seriously and swiftly." He continued, "Those involved should
reflect on their actions."
"Nuclear power can only operate with the people's trust," Abe
told reporters. The litany below shows that the betrayal of peoples
trust is standing operating procedure for Japan's nuclear
Nuclear power is never safe, but it can be made less safe
through a potent combination of lies, cover-ups and geological
A lot to reflect on
The Japanese nuclear industry, and TEPCO in particular, is no
stranger to scandal.
In 2002, three top TEPCO officials resigned after finally
acknowledging that the company had violated safety regulations and
falsified records at three of its largest nuclear power plants
(including the one at Kashiwazaki). All 17 TEPCO reactors were
ordered to shut down at the end of the investigation. The cover-up
had been going on since the 1980s.
March 2007 - It was discovered that the Hokuriku utility did not
inform the public or nuclear inspectors about a serious incident at
Shika nuclear power plant where, on July 18th, 1999, failure of
control rods lead to an uncontrolled chain reaction.
April 2006 - A radioactive spill of 40 litres of liquid
containing plutonium occurs at a brand new reprocessing plant in
August 2004 -
A ruptured pipe in Mihama nuclear power plant kills five
July 2002 - A shipment of plutonium pellets
leaves Japan, on a return journey to the UK, after revelations
that British Nuclear Fuels falsified records about safety checks in
September 1999 - Workers at a fuel factory in
Tokaimura fail to follow guidelines, leading to an uncontrolled
chain reaction that lasts for three days. Three workers die due to
high irradiation and the neighbourhood is evacuated.
More examples in
this Boston Globe article.
More information about Japan's nuclear program from the Citizens' Nuclear
More stories about
Japan's nuclear industry.