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Accidents in Japan and More Nuclear


A non-radioactive steam leak at a nuclear-powered generating plant in central Japan killed four workers and injured seven others. The accident occurred in the Number 3 reactor at the 1,666 megawatt (MW) Mihama plant operated by Kansai Electric, some 200 miles west of Tokyo. The 3-reactor Mihama plant is the second-oldest operating nuke plant in Japan, with a start date of November 1970. Number 3 reactor is the youngest and largest (826 Megawatts) in the plant, having come online in December, 1976. (Map at right. Click to enlarge. Source: Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan).

The four workers killed were part of a sub-contracting crew preparing for maintenance on pipes next week. Steam escaped through a hole in the pipes that had been used in the reactor since it began operations 28 years ago. The pipes were designed to work for 30 years, Japan’s NHK Television reported, citing Kansai Electric officials. The pipes carried steam heated to 140 degrees Celsius (284 degrees Fahrenheit).

The deaths were the first in Japan while a reactor was in operation, NHK reported. If researchers identify the problem as wear and tear, the accident is likely to affect maintenance of other nuclear plants, NHK said.  Bloomberg.

This is not one of the plants that Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) recently brought back online in response to rising oil prices. (Earlier post.) Separately, however, TEPCO shut down the Number 2 reactor at its Fukushima Daini nuclear power station Sunday because of a water leak. The 1,100 MW Number 2 is 20 years old.

This was Japan’s second fatal accident at a nuke plant in its history, the first being from a fire in 1967. In 1999, worker error at a uranium processing facility led to an uncontrolled chain reaction that released radiation killing two workers and forcing a local evacuation. (The workers had used buckets to mix nuclear fuel in a tub.)

Japan is the world’s third-largest generator of nuclear power, behind the US and France. Its 52 reactors operated at 75.6% capacity in June, up from 46.9% a year before.

Japan is also increasing its nuclear generating capacity by 40%, adding an additional 17,730 MW of generating capacity from 15 new reactors under construction and planned, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Japan is not alone in this increase.

Overall, global nuclear-powered electricity generation is projected to increase 31%, factoring in new reactors under construction, planned and proposed. There is a very useful table detailing this at the World Nuclear Association site. What is below is a modified version of that chart, looking at the percentage change in nuclear generation capacity between the reactors currently operational in July, and all those under construction, planned and proposed.

Change in Nuclear Generating Capacity from New Reactors Under Construction, Planned and Proposed as of 26 July 2004
  Reactors in Operation
July 2004
Reactors under Construction, Planned and Proposed
July 2004
Increase in Nuclear Generation
  No. MWe No. MWe %
Argentina 2 935 1 692 74.0%
Armenia 1 376 0 0
Belgium 7 5,728 0 0
Brazil 2 1,901 1 1,245 65.5%
Bulgaria 4 2,722 1 1,000 36.7%
Canada 17 12,080 3 1,545 12.8%
China 9 6,587 6 5,700 87%
Czech Republic 6 3,472 2 1,900 54.7%
Egypt 0 0 1 600 na
Finland 4 2,656 1 1,600 60.2%
France 59 63,473 0 0
Germany 18 20,643 0 0
Hungary 4 1,755 0 0
India 14 2,493 33 17,288 693.5%
Indonesia 0 0 2 2,000 na
Iran 0 0 5 4,750 na
Israel 0 0 1 1,200 na
Japan 52 45,521 15 17,730 38.9%
Korea DPR (North) 0 0 2 1,900 na
Korea RO (South) 19 15,880 9 10,160 64%
Lithuania 2 2,370 0 0
Mexico 2 1,310 0 0
Netherlands 1 452 0 0
Pakistan 2 425 1 300 70.6%
Romania 1 655 4 2,650 405%
Russia 30 20,793 14 14,850 71.4%
Slovakia 6 2,472 2 840 34.0%
Slovenia 1 676 0 0
South Africa 2 1,842 1 125 6.8%
Spain 9 7,584 0 0
Sweden 11 9,429 0 0
Switzerland 5 3,220 0 0
Taiwan 6 4,884 2 2,600 53%
Ukraine 13 11,268 2 1,900 16.9%
UK 23 11,852 0 0
USA 103 97,485 1 1,065 1.1%
Vietnam 0 0 2 2,000 na
World 437 362,939 134 113,595 31.3%

Nuclear energy is experiencing something of a renaissance, driven in some countries by worries about climate change and in others by the stability of the energy supply. James Lovelock, environmentalist, scientist and originator of the Gaia concept of the planet as a self-regulating and maintaining entity, came out thusly in favor of nuclear power in an op-ed piece in the Indepedent.

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer.

I find it sad and ironic that the UK, which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens. But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.

Even if they were right about its dangers, and they are not, its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world.

Yet accidents such as these in Japan scare people with an immediacy that overwhelms the longer-term concerns around climate change or oil supply. Solutions? Only hard ones. But education at a minimum, the better to support rational discussions and to make informed choices in elections. (And for the nuclear industry, heightened attention to policies, procedures, inspections, maintenance and oversight. An error at a windfarm offers fewer repercussions than an error in a reactor.) And the same mantra: conservation, efficiency and alternatives.




A few years back I heard a speech by a critic of the nuclear industry who gave figures about how soon a nuclear plant becomes so contaminated with radiation that it is unusable. Her point was that this moment is reached before the plant has had time to pay for itself. It was a powerful point in her speech, but I've often wondered if that is a well-established criticism. If anyone knows what I'm talking about, I'd love to find out more about it.


Hmm. The only thing I've seen similar to that is that once decomissioning costs--i.e., tearing an old plant down and disposing of the radioactive material--were factored in, *then* the investment didn't pan out. But in terms of lifecycle -- the trend now is to increase a plant's capacity and extend the operating license as a cheaper alternative to building new plants. I don't think that would happen if they couldn't be used because of radioactivitiy, as the speaker seemed to suggest...
New plants can be dicey investments for a number of reasons. The Financial Times has a good article in Tuesday's paper (10 August, page 11), on the financial and political pros and cons of nuclear power.

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