The Truth about Nuclear Power in Japan

A nuclear power plant

Engineer Norio Hirari worked in Japan’s nuclear power industry for twenty years, specialising in building pipelines. He was exposed to radiation more than 100 times and died of cancer. His mother told him “Death is the biggest event in one’s life”, so he was determined to reveal everything he knew about nuclear power plants before he died. This summarises his talk at the Columban staffed Chigasaki church in Japan in 1996.

You can’t understand nuclear power without understanding how the plants are built and maintained.

Just as bad builders can ruin a house designed by a first-class architect, so it is with nuclear plants. Many accidents arise because workers (and inspectors) don’t know how to read a plan. Construction has been simplified to allow unskilled workers to join the units the factories have prepared, but they never know how crucial each part is. When workers left steel wire inside one of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant, an accident could have affected the whole world.

A reactor requires an annual check-up because water and steam erode the thickness of the pipes. Operations should be suspended, but suspension can cost billions of yen. Instead, the workers risk radiation exposure. The more skilled a worker is, the faster he will reach the annual limitation of radiation allowed by the law. So, there is no option but to use unskilled workers.

The duration of work depends on how much radiation one is allowed to be exposed to daily. Japanese law permits up to 50 millisieverts annually. A regular check-up takes about three months. Fifty millisieverts divided by 90 days is a day’s limitation. However, some high-radiation areas are safe for only 5–7 minutes daily. That is an impossible task, so the workers risk exposure for three days, or a week, at once, thereby working 10 or 20 minutes a day. This should not be allowed.

Workers change into protective suits before going onsite, but the suits don’t protect the body from radiation. They only prevent radioactive materials from leaving the site. An alarm is attached to the inner vest, and workers are told to get out as soon as it sounds. But there is no clock, and pollution means they cannot wear watches. They guess how much time has passed. And the chilling sound of the alarm tells them they have already been exposed to the equivalent of tens of X-rays. Even if they manage to complete the job, chances are they have not followed the proper order: the work has been compromised.

The protective shoes rarely fit. Workers can neither stand firmly nor move around freely. The full-face mask, designed to prevent inhaling radioactive materials, makes it hard to talk or hear instructions. As they fasten the bolts and screws, their thoughts dwell on how long they have been in there. Anxious about radiation, they can never perform optimally.

Internal exposure mostly occurs while cleaning the inside of the reactor. This is more dangerous than external exposure because there’s no distance between the radioactive material and the body. Radioactive materials ingested take three days to excrete in urine or sweat, with anything remaining in the body accumulating to dangerous levels.

Different measuring standards are another problem. Inconsistent rounding caused a sodium leak at Monju in Fukui Prefecture in 1995—Hitachi rounded half a millimetre down, Toshiba half a millimetre up. Only half a millimetre, but 100 half-millimetres meant the pipes did not meet.

There is ignorance of contamination dangers. When a grinding machine seriously injured a worker at the Fukushima plant, he was sped to the hospital in his protective suit with his body unwashed. The emergency personnel, and the other patients they touched, were contaminated. These patients spread the contamination outside the hospital. The whole town panicked.

If it is hard to deal with one person, what can we do when an accident contaminates many simultaneously?

Some say that even without skilled workers, plants can be inspected effectively. However, in Japan, they are inspected after construction, which is ineffective because the inspectors hear only what the manufacturers and construction companies tell them. It’s crucial to watch the construction process.

With accidents at the plants too numerous to ignore, the Cabinet began sending “specialists” to each plant. But these so-called specialists had worked in fish farming or silk farming. One at the Mihama nuclear plant had been inspecting rice only three months previously.

A coolant tube ruptured at the Mihama Nuclear Power Plant in 1991, spewing radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the sea. The reactor was on the verge of overheating—a second Chernobyl 0.7 seconds away. Imagine a bus travelling 100 kilometres an hour, carrying a hundred million people, losing its brakes, and the driver having to crash into a rock wall to stop. By luck, an experienced operator was there to activate the cooling system manually. The error had happened during construction, and twenty years of regular check-ups failed to find it. The designer would have been surprised to hear it was normal for builders to cut and stretch parts at the site when not fixed properly.

Nuclear power plants, which generate enormous heat, must be cooled. Seawater is used; tons of hot water contaminated with radioactive material are returned to the sea every minute, and the radioactive materials disgorging from the tall cooling towers expose nearby residents to radiation.

Operational reactors produce spent fuel deemed low-level radioactive waste—yet if you stand near the containers for five hours, you will be exposed to a fatal dose.

Once reactors stop, the water rusts them out, causing radioactive leakage if they are not regularly checked. A reactor produces tens of thousands of tons of contaminated waste, and managing it might require more than the energy the plants generate. It will be the lot of future generations to manage the waste and the decommissioned reactors. 

One would hope that the situation has improved since Norio Hirari’s talk. However, a March 2011 article from The Associated Press was headlined ‘Bungling, cover-ups define Japanese nuclear industry’. The article mentioned a case in which workers hand-mixed uranium in stainless steel buckets, instead of processing it by machine, exposing hundreds of workers to radiation. Two later died. And, a 2021 report was headlined ‘An unending litany of scandals, ranging from those at the Keystone Cop level to potentially deadly serious.’ Also, in newspaper reports collusion and corruption have often been mentioned. 

Fr Paul McCartin

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