Nuclear Energy: Japan officials ignored risks; UK to sign deal with France; new US reactors test for industry

Updated On: Feb 17, 2012

Japan's nuclear safety chief has told a parliament inquiry that the country's standards are inferior to global ones. Official complacency left Japan unprepared for the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. Meanwhile, the UK and France are to sign a deal on nuclear energy cooperation, and analysts say the recent license granted for the construction of two new reactors will be a crucial test for the US nuclear industry.

Japan Ignored Nuclear Risks

“The root of the problem lies in the fact that, when other countries implement changes, Japan spends time making excuses as to why we don’t have to follow,” Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Madarame Haruki told the inquiry on Wednesday, in a surprisingly frank public testimony.

For example, officials did not give serious consideration to what would happen if electric power were lost at a nuclear station, because they believed that Japan’s power grid was far more reliable than those in other countries.

Officials also gave too little attention, Dr Madarame said, to new studies raising the possibility of large earthquakes off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture.

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami cut off the Fukushima plant from the grid, leaving operators unable to keep the reactor cores from overheating. The Fukushima disaster has led to widespread criticism of Japanese nuclear officials for their lax approach to safety and poor response to the crisis.

Dr Madarame, who heads the panel of nuclear safety experts advising the government, told the inquiry that officials had succumbed to a blind belief in Japan's technical prowess and failed to thoroughly assess the risks of building nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone country.

According to Dr Madarame, utilities and bureaucrats were responsible for lax enforcement. Dr Madarame said he was to blame for some of the lapses, but that the Nuclear Safety Commission had a culture of complacency long before he took over in mid-2010. He claimed he had been trying to revise nuclear safety guidelines since taking over.

The candid testimony comes at a time when the government is pushing to restart nuclear reactors around the country that were shut down following the accident. Only 3 of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently operating.

Dr Madarame said the government should go far beyond the lax safety checks that Japanese regulators have performed for years, which he said were still being carried out in some cases using “technology three decades old”. He said that regulators had been too cosy with the industry.

The on-going Diet inquiry is the first investigation into the Fukushima disaster with powers of subpoena.

Report: Nuclear Safety Chief Says Lax Rules Led to Fukushima Crisis [Bloomberg, 16 Feb 2012]

Report: Japan Ignored Nuclear Risks, Official Says [New York Times, 15 February 2012]

Review Too Late

According to a Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) document, the company promised a fuller assessment of the risk of such a disaster just four days before the earthquake and tsunami in March - but not for another seven months.

The Associated Press says the briefing paper raises questions about whether the utility and regulators were too complacent about studies that suggested a tsunami could overwhelm the defences at the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant.

It also highlights Japan's slow pace of decision-making on an issue that experts had been warning about almost two years earlier.

Report: Japan planned review of tsunami risk, but too late [BusinessWeek (AP), 15 February 2012]

UK and France Nuclear Agreement

Over in Europe, the United Kingdom is to sign a deal with France to strengthen co-operation in the development of civil nuclear energy. The joint declaration is expected when UK Prime Minister David Cameron meets French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.

"This joint declaration will signal our shared commitment to the future of civil nuclear power, setting out a shared long term vision of safe, secure, sustainable and affordable energy, that supports growth and helps to deliver our emission reductions targets," a statement from Downing Street said.

The two governments will work together with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "to strengthen international capability to react to nuclear emergencies and establish a joint framework for cooperation and exchanging good practice on civil nuclear security".

In June 2011, the UK announced plans for more nuclear plants, confirming a list of eight sites - all of which are adjacent to existing nuclear facilities.

Report: UK and France sign nuclear energy agreement [BBC, 17 Feb 2011]

New US Nuclear Reactors

Earlier this month, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission also approved the first nuclear reactors to be built in the country since 1978.

On February 9, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-1 to issue a permit to build and operate two new reactors at the existing Vogtle plant in Georgia.

These were the first permits issued since 1978, a year before the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania halted plans for more reactors in the US.

The two new advanced AP1000 reactors manufactured by Westinghouse Electric, a nuclear firm now owned by Toshiba, will cost plant operator Southern Co. and its partners US$14 billion. The new reactors may be online as soon as 2016 and 2017.

Analysts say the Vogtle project is an important test of the US nuclear industry's ability to bring a new reactor online in a timely, cost-effective, and safe manner.

Another power company, Scana Corp, is planning to build another two AP1000 reactors at their Summer plant in South Carolina. They are expected to receive a license later this year.

Other US power companies are also seeking federal licenses to build new reactors but do not expect to complete anything until after 2020.

Report: Analysis: U.S. nuclear industry's fate rests with Southern Co [Reuters, 16 Feb 2011]

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