[Marxism] Earthquake and Threatened Nuclear Meltdown in Japan

Sukla Sen suklasenp at yahoo.co.uk
Mon Aug 20 11:33:28 MDT 2007


Why Worry? Japan's Nuclear Plants at Grave Risk From
Quake Damage 

Ishibashi Katsuhiko

I had warned that a major earthquake would strike the
Chuetsu region around Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture,
and about the fundamental vulnerability of nuclear
power plants.

The 6.8 magnitude temblor of July 16 caused
considerable damage to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear
Power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.
(TEPCO), proving me right.

In the 40 years that Japan had been building nuclear
plants, seismic activity was, fortunately or
unfortunately, relatively quiet. Not a single nuclear
facility was struck by a big quake. The government,
along with the power industry and the academic
community, all developed the habit of underestimating
the potential risks posed by major quakes.

Since around the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake
that devastated Kobe in 1995, however, almost the
entire Japanese archipelago has entered a period of
brisk seismic activity.

In the past two years, major quakes took place in
close proximity of three nuclear power plants: the
Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture (August 2005), the
Shika plant in Ishikawa Prefecture (March 2007) and
the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. In each case, the
maximum ground motion caused by the quake was stronger
than the seismic design criteria for the nuclear power
plants. The latest temblor near Kashiwazaki generated
a peak ground acceleration of 993 gal, compared with
the design value of 450 gal.

Map showing location of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant

This is the kind of hazardous situation that a very
quake-prone nation must expect to occasionally face
when it operates so many nuclear reactors. There are,
in fact, 55.

What happened to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plant
should not be described as "unexpected".

What happened there could have been much worse. If the
focus of the quake had been a little farther
southwest, toward the plant site, and the magnitude
had been 7.5--the size of a quake that hit Niigata
Prefecture in 1964--and if all seven reactors at the
plant had been operating, genpatsu-shinsai, a
combination of an earthquake and a nuclear meltdown,
could have occurred.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant

That would have been a catastrophic event where the
damaging effects of the quake itself and radiation
leaked from the plant reinforced each other.

The period of high-level seismic activity will
continue for another 40 years or more. Unless radical
steps are taken now to reduce the vulnerability of
nuclear power plants to earthquakes, Japan could
experience a true nuclear catastrophe in the near

The risk of such a nightmare is especially high for
the Hamaoka Nuclear Power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture
and the cluster of nuclear plants along Wakasa Bay in
Fukui Prefecture. A serious accident at these
facilities could have a profound effect on the three
biggest metropolitan areas around Tokyo, Nagoya and

Location of Japan’s nuclear power plants (2006)

The latest temblor highlighted some fatal flaws in the
old seismic design guidelines.

But even the new guidelines that took effect last
September in the first sweeping revision in 28 years
are still seriously flawed because they underestimate
design basis earthquake ground motion.

I was a member of the expert panel that developed the
new seismic design guidelines, but I resigned during
the final stage of the work last August to protest the
panel's stance on this issue. This defect must be
fixed quickly, learning from what happened at the
Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

TEPCO has been criticized for failing to sufficiently
consider the submarine active faults near the plant.
Many experts argue that thorough seismic research
under the new guidelines will prevent such an
oversight in future. But a strong earthquake of up to
about 7.3 magnitude could directly hit an area where
even perfect seismic research could not discover an
active fault line.

So the guidelines should require that a nuclear power
plant, no matter where it is located, should be
designed to withstand at least the ground acceleration
caused by an earthquake of about a 7.3 magnitude,
roughly 1000 gal. In fact, however, the new guidelines
require only about 450 gal.

This figure should be raised substantially, and all
existing nuclear power plants should be examined
rigorously according to the revised criteria. The
facilities that cannot be improved under the revised
criteria should be shut down.

The most serious fact is that not only are the new
design guidelines defective, but the system to enforce
them is in shambles. Much of the blame for the
underestimation of the active fault line near the
Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant rests with the shoddy
examination of TEPCO's design for the plant that
overlooked the problem.

In The Asahi Shimbun's column on Sept. 16 last year, I
pointed out that an active fault line had been
overlooked in the process of designing the Shimane
Nuclear Power Plant in Shimane Prefecture, a serious
oversight in the safety inspection. But no action has
been taken to address the problem, demonstrating the
irresponsibility of the nuclear safety authorities.
The expert who advised the power company and took part
in the safety inspection--the person responsible for
the underestimation of the fault line--is still in an
important position on the panel of the Nuclear and
Industrial Safety Agency.

A senior agency official recently said there will be
no new review of the seismic design guidelines, at
least for the time being.

But the guidelines are under the jurisdiction of the
Nuclear Safety Commission, which is supposed to be an
independent and neutral regulatory organization. By
saying so, the official overstepped his authority, and
his remarks clearly demonstrated how the commission is
susceptible to government intervention.

All these facts add up to a policy failure as serious
as the blunders that led to the HIV-tainted-blood
scandal and the recent pension record-keeping mess.
The Diet should take a good look into the government's
flawed nuclear safety policy along with the problems
caused by the recent earthquake for a radical reform
of the government approach to ensuring the safety of
nuclear power plants.

Otherwise, there can be no viable future for Japan's
nuclear safety.

Ishibashi Katsuhiko is a professor at the Research
Center for Urban Safety and Security of Kobe

This article appeared in the International Herald
Tribune/Asahi Shinbun on August 11, 2007). Posted at
Japan Focus on August 11, 2007.  

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