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By Philip White

Nuclear Reactions

A nonprofit group exposes the frightening lessons learned from the Mihama-3 accident

By now the accident at the Mihama-3 nuclear reactor has probably drifted off the radar of most expats living in Japan. For the benefit of those who have forgotten, the accident occurred on August 9, the 59th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. Five people died and another six were injured when a pipe burst in the turbine building. Obviously the casualties were nothing like those at Nagasaki, where more than 70,000 died, but there are grounds for thinking that this accident could be a premonition of bigger things to come. So rather than forget it, it would be a good idea to learn the lessons that the accident has to offer.

Philip White is the International Liaison Officer at the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center

One group that won't forget is the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC, http://cnic.jp/english), for which I work. Since the accident, we have been tracking down information, making as loud a noise as possible, and generally getting up the nose of the nuclear regulators as we try to get to the bottom of the matter.

The group with responsibility for regulating Japan's nuclear industry is the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). NISA's official role may be to ensure the safety of the nuclear industry, but in reality it exists to reassure the public so that the nuclear industry can continue to operate. When there is an accident, they wring their hands and say that procedures will be tightened up in future, but you won't find them telling the industry to do anything that will seriously affect its bottom line. However, enough damning evidence has come dribbling out since the Mihama accident to prove that the current inspection regime and the Japanese nuclear safety system simply don't work. To illustrate this point, allow me to provide some details.

The specific problem with the pipe at Mihama-3 was that it had thinned down to around 1mm, compared to the official minimum of 4.7mm. Some people may remember that the ruptured pipe had somehow been left off the list of ones to be inspected. The industry has since admitted that 19 locations were missed from this list at various reactors around the country. However, about half of the 140,000-odd locations that were supposed to be checked had never actually been checked. So just because a location made it onto the checklist, there's no guarantee that it meets the minimum safety standards.

The question to be answered is whether the inspection regime and the nuclear safety system as a whole are effective. Essentially, that system is based on a combination of compulsory and voluntary inspections of the thousands of kilometers of pipes that snake around inside nuclear power plants. Some locations must be inspected directly, while for other locations only a representative sample is checked. If the pipes sampled are in sound condition, then NISA infers that all the other pipes are OK too.

Now let us return to the question of nuclear safety. Consider the following: (a) there are lots of pipes in the nuclear reactors in Japan that should have been checked, but which have thinned to below the regulatory minimum without being noticed; (b) pipes that weren't even supposed to require regular checking have thinned below the regulatory minimum; (c) there is plenty of evidence to indicate that pipe thinning doesn't occur at a constant rate. It may be difficult to grasp the significance of this all at once, but we can conclude that, under these circumstances, it is impossible to guarantee the safety of pipes that have not been checked.

Jon Siegel

The proceedings of the official investigations, as well as our own meetings with NISA, lead us to believe that the agency will instead conclude that the nuclear inspection regime and the nuclear safety system as a whole are generally sound. They might recommend a few minor additions to the inspection list, but what they won't do is order the power companies to inspect the whole length of the piping in their reactors, even though that is the only way to ensure that there won't be another accident like Mihama-3. That would be just too expensive. The nuclear industry wouldn't survive.

There isn't space to explain in detail how an accident such as this might lead to a catastrophic accident such as Chernobyl, or to a near-catastrophic accident like Three Mile Island, but let me simply say that the latter example had many things in common with Mihama. And as long as economic factors are routinely prioritized over safety, and as long as reactors continue to grow older, we have to assume that a catastrophic accident will occur one day. Judging from the Mihama-3 case, we'd be foolish to rely on the power companies and the regulators to do their jobs properly. That's why groups like CNIC are sounding the alarm now, while this accident is still relatively fresh in the public mind. We hope that the general public will heed our warning and pressure the government to give up its stubborn fixation on nuclear power.