Tag Archives: Fukushima nuclear plant

Forget about Fukushima:Riding the Wave of Nuclear Renaissance, China, India, South Korea

The biggest drop in prices of uranium in two years may be ending as China and India plan atomic power developments that will more than double global production even after Japan’s nuclear disaster.   The radioactive metal has slumped 8.7 percent this year, the most since 2009, after tumbling as much as 27 percent as governments reviewed nuclear plants following the Japanese crisis in March, according to prices from MF Global Holdings Inc. China and India will lead a 46 percent increase in consumption by the world’s five biggest atomic-power developers by 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Soaring energy demand from the world’s fastest-growing economies is buoying uranium and prospects of miners from Cameco Corp. to Paladin Energy Inc. even after radiation leaks from Japan’s 40-year-old Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant sparked the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. China’s Nuclear Energy Association said May 12 it will boost atomic capacity as much as eight times by 2020. A day later, India’s Atomic Energy Commission said it will increase production 13-fold by 2030.

“The question is whether what happened in Japan with older-generation reactors justifies not building newer, safer reactors, and to me the answer is no,” Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. energy secretary who is now non-executive chairman of Areva SA, the largest nuclear-equipment producer, said in a May 17 telephone interview from Washington. “China recognizes they can’t satisfy the growth in electricity demand in a single dimension and they really need a diverse group of sources.”

A gigawatt, enough to power about 1 million U.S. homes, requires 200 tons of uranium a year at full operating rates, according to the World Nuclear Association. China, India and South Korea expect to use 262 gigawatts by 2030, more than what the U.S., Japan, Germany and France produce together, according to Bloomberg data.  Nuclear energy was being held out by nations from the U.S. to France and the U.K. as a potential solution to challenges posed by rising oil prices, which reached a record $147 a barrel in July 2008. Unlike fossil fuels, atomic power produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, as governments around the world try to cut down on pollution.  Those considerations became secondary after the Japanese disaster showed construction flaws at the Fukushima plant. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the plant, posted a full- year loss of 1.25 trillion yen ($15 billion) on May 20.

None of that reduces the power requirements of the world’s fastest-growing economies. China’s economy will probably expand 9.5 percent this year, according to the median of 11 forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. India’s gross domestic product may grow as much as 8.5 percent in the current fiscal year, Chakravarthy Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, said on May 3.  “Fukushima has made us pause and rethink some of our projects,” Xu Yuming, vice secretary general of the Nuclear Energy Association, said in a May 12 interview in Beijing. “Of course, the overall plan won’t be changed. China faces power shortages and we need to change our energy mix. To resolve these issues, we must develop nuclear.”

Even if Japan develops half of its proposed 19 gigawatts of nuclear power this decade, the country, together with China, India, Russia and South Korea, will add a combined 160 gigawatts by 2020, according to Bloomberg data based on figures from the World Nuclear Association, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan and South Korea’s economy ministry.  South Korea may almost double its nuclear-fired capacity to about 36 gigawatts by 2024, accounting for 48.5 percent of the nation’s power generation up from 31.4 percent today, according to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy. The country may add 10 reactors by 2020 totaling 12.8 gigawatts.  That will require an extra 32,000 metric tons of uranium a year, according to calculations based on data from the World Nuclear Association. Global use will be about 69,000 tons in 2011…..

Germany, which relies on atomic energy for 23 percent of its supplies, may phase out plants as early as 2022, Georg Nuesslein, a lawmaker for Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party, said in a phone interview on May 4. Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered a halt to the country’s seven oldest reactors on March 15, removing more than 25 percent of its 20,700 megawatts of capacity, equivalent to the power needed to supply almost 21 million U.S. households.  Siemens AG, which had planned to become the market leader in atomic power along with Russia’s Rosatom Corp., has decided to abandon its nuclear plans after the Fukushima accident damaged market potential, Handelsblatt reported, citing unidentified people close to the company…

Japan, the third-biggest nuclear-power producer after the U.S. and France, is reconsidering plans to increase the share of atomic energy to 50 percent from 30 percent, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on May 10. About 13 gigawatts of capacity is currently closed in Japan due to the earthquake, according to Societe Generale SA. No decision has been made on whether to restart the plants….

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on April 21 renewed the operating licenses for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, the country’s biggest atomic plant, for an additional 20 years. The U.S., which produces about 27 percent of the world’s nuclear power, had said it will scrutinize license renewals for utilities following the Japanese crisis.  “The right solution is to go forward and build safer, new- generation reactors,” Abraham said. “It will help diversify the fuel mix and contribute to energy independence. Overtime, cooler heads will prevail.”

By Moming Zhou, Dinakar Sethuraman and Lars Paulsson, Uranium to Recover as China’s Nuclear Plans Offset Fukushima, Businessweek, May 23, 2011

Nuclear Energy and the Public Trust: Japan

The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risk in Japan’s atomic power industry.  The destruction caused by last week’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami comes less than four years after a 6.8 quake shut the world’s biggest atomic plant, also run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. In 2002 and 2007, revelations the utility had faked repair records forced the resignation of the company’s chairman and president, and a three-week shutdown of all 17 of its reactors.

With almost no oil or gas reserves of its own, nuclear power has been a national priority for Japan since the end of World War II, a conflict the country fought partly to secure oil supplies. Japan has 54 operating nuclear reactors — more than any other country except the U.S. and France — to power its industries, pitting economic demands against safety concerns in the world’s most earthquake-prone country.

Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period.  Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismology professor at Kobe University, has said Japan’s history of nuclear accidents stems from an overconfidence in plant engineering. In 2006, he resigned from a government panel on reactor safety, saying the review process was rigged and “unscientific.”

In an interview in 2007 after Tokyo Electric’s Kashiwazaki nuclear plant was struck by an earthquake, Ishibashi said fundamental improvements were needed in engineering standards for atomic power stations, without which Japan could suffer a catastrophic disaster.

“We didn’t learn anything,” Ishibashi said in a phone interview this week. “Nuclear power is national policy and there’s a real reluctance to scrutinize it.”

To be sure, Japan’s record isn’t the worst. The International Atomic Energy Agency rates nuclear accidents on a scale of zero to seven, with Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union rated seven, the most dangerous. Fukushima, where the steel vessels at the heart of the reactors have so far not ruptured, is currently a class five, the same category as the 1979 partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in the U.S.

“The key thing here is that this is not another Chernobyl,” said Ken Brockman, a former director of nuclear installation safety at the IAEA in Vienna. “Containment engineering has been vindicated. What has not been vindicated is the site engineering that put us on a path to accident.”

The 40-year-old Fukushima plant, built in the 1970s when Japan’s first wave of nuclear construction began, stood up to the country’s worst earthquake on record March 11 only to have its power and back-up generators knocked out by the 7-meter tsunami that followed.

Lacking electricity to pump water needed to cool the atomic core, engineers vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere to release pressure, leading to a series of explosions that blew out concrete walls around the reactors.

Radiation readings spiked around Fukushima as the disaster widened, forcing the evacuation of 200,000 people and causing radiation levels to rise on the outskirts of Tokyo, 135 miles (210 kilometers) to the south, with a population of 30 million.

Back-up diesel generators that might have averted the disaster were positioned in a basement, where they were overwhelmed by waves.

“This in the country that invented the word Tsunami,” said Brockman, who also worked at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Japan is going to have a look again at its regulatory process and whether it’s intrusive enough.”

The cascade of events at Fukushima had been foretold in a report published in the U.S. two decades ago. The 1990 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency responsible for safety at the country’s power plants, identified earthquake-induced diesel generator failure and power outage leading to failure of cooling systems as one of the “most likely causes” of nuclear accidents from an external event.

While the report was cited in a 2004 statement by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, it seems adequate measures to address the risk were not taken by Tokyo Electric, said Jun Tateno, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and professor at Chuo University.

“It’s questionable whether Tokyo Electric really studied the risks,” Tateno said in an interview. “That they weren’t prepared for a once in a thousand year occurrence will not go over as an acceptable excuse.”

Hajime Motojuku, a utility spokesman, said he couldn’t immediately confirm whether the company was aware of the report.

All six boiling water reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant were designed by General Electric Co. (GE) and the company built the No. 1, 2 and 6 reactors, spokeswoman Emily Caruso said in an e-mail response to questions. The No. 1 reactor went into commercial operation in 1971.

Toshiba Corp. (6502) built 3 and 5. Hitachi Ltd. (6501), which folded its nuclear operations into a venture with GE known as Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd. in 2007, built No. 4.

All the reactors meet the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements for safe operation during and after an earthquake for the areas where they are licensed and sited, GE said on its website.

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, 67, working as an engineer at Babcock Hitachi K.K., helped design and supervise the manufacture of a $250 million steel pressure vessel for Tokyo Electric in 1975. Today, that vessel holds the fuel rods in the core of the No. 4 reactor at Fukushima’s Dai-Ichi plant, hit by explosion and fire after the tsunami.

Tanaka says the vessel was damaged in the production process. He says he knows because he orchestrated the cover-up. When he brought his accusations to the government more than a decade later, he was ignored, he says.

The accident occurred when Tanaka and his team were strengthening the steel in the pressure vessel, heating it in a furnace to more than 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature that melts metal. Braces that should have been inside the vessel during the blasting were either forgotten or fell over. After it cooled, Tanaka found that its walls had warped.

The law required the flawed vessel be scrapped, a loss that Tanaka said might have bankrupted the company. Rather than sacrifice years of work and risk the company’s survival, Tanaka used computer modeling to devise a way to reshape the vessel so that no one would know it had been damaged. He did that with Hitachi’s blessings, he said.

“I saved the company billions of yen,” Tanaka said in an interview March 12, the day after the earthquake. Tanaka says he got a 3 million yen bonus ($38,000) from Hitachi and a plaque acknowledging his “extraordinary” effort in 1974. “At the time, I felt like a hero.”

That changed with Chernobyl. Two years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, Tanaka went to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to report the cover-up he’d engineered more than a decade earlier. Hitachi denied his accusation and the government refused to investigate.

Kenta Takahashi, an official at the NISA’s Power Generation Inspection Division, said he couldn’t confirm whether the agency’s predecessor, the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, conducted an investigation into Tanaka’s claim.

In 1988, Hitachi met with Tanaka to discuss the work he had done to fix the dent in the vessel. They concluded that there was no safety problem, said Hitachi spokesman Yuichi Izumisawa. “We have not revised our view since then,” Izumisawa said.

In 1990, Tanaka wrote a book called “Why Nuclear Power Is Dangerous” that detailed his experiences.

Tokyo Electric in 2002 admitted it had falsified repair reports at nuclear plants for more than two decades. Chairman Hiroshi Araki and President Nobuyama Minami resigned to take responsibility for hundreds of occasions in which the company had submitted false data to the regulator.

Then in 2007, the utility said it hadn’t come entirely clean five years earlier. It had concealed at least six emergency stoppages at its Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station and a “critical” reaction at the plant’s No. 3 unit that lasted for seven hours.

Tokyo Electric ignored warnings about the tsunami risks that caused the crisis at Fukushima, Tatsuya Ito, who represented Fukushima prefecture in the national parliament from 1991 to 2003, said in a March 16 telephone interview.

The Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant was only designed to withstand a 5.7-meter tsunami, not the 7-meter wall of water generated by last week’s earthquake or the 6.4-meter tsunami that struck neighboring Miyagi prefecture after the Valdiva earthquake in 1960, Ito said.

The dangers posed by a tsunami the size of the one generated by the 9.5-magnitude Valdiva temblor off Chile are described in a 2002 report by the Japan Society of Civil Engineers, Ito said.

“Tokyo Electric brought this upon itself,” said Ito, who now heads the National Center for the Citizens’ Movement Against the Nuclear Threat, based in Tokyo. “This accident unfolded as expected.”

Ito said he has met Tepco employees to discuss his concerns at least 20 times since 2003 and sent a formal letter to then- president Tsunehisa Katsumata in 2005.

“We are prioritizing the safety of the plant and are not at a point where we can reflect upon and properly assess the root causes,” said Naoki Tsunoda, a Tokyo Electric spokesman in Tokyo. He said he couldn’t immediately confirm the exchanges made between Ito and the company.

Kansai Electric Power Co., the utility that provides Osaka with electricity, said it also faked nuclear safety records. Chubu Electric Power Co., Tohoku Electric Power Co. and Hokuriku Electric Power Co. (9505) said the same.

Only months after that second round of revelations, an earthquake struck a cluster of seven reactors run by Tokyo Electric on Japan’s north coast. The Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s biggest, was hit by a 6.8 magnitude temblor that buckled walls and caused a fire at a transformer. About 1.5 liters (half gallon) of radioactive water sloshed out of a container and ran into the sea through drains because sealing plugs hadn’t been installed.

While there were no deaths from the accident and the IAEA said radiation released was within authorized limits for public health and environmental safety, the damage was such that three of the plant’s reactors are still offline.

After the quake, Trade Minister Akira Amari said regulators hadn’t properly reviewed Tokyo Electric’s geological survey when they approved the site in 1974.

The world’s biggest nuclear power plant had been built on an earthquake fault line that generated three times as much seismic acceleration, or 606 gals, as it was designed to withstand, the utility said. One gal, a measure of shock effect, represents acceleration of 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) per square second.

After Hokuriku Electric’s Shika nuclear power plant in Ishikawa prefecture was rocked by a 6.9 magnitude quake in March 2007, government scientists found it had been built near an earthquake fault that was more than twice as long as regulators deemed threatening.

“Regulators just rubber-stamp the utilities’ reports,” Takashi Nakata, a former Hiroshima Institute of Technology seismologist and an anti-nuclear activist, said at the time.

While Japan had never suffered a failure comparable to Chernobyl, the Fukushima disaster caps a decade of fatal accidents.

Two workers at a fuel processing plant were killed by radiation exposure in 1999, when they used buckets, instead of the prescribed containers, to eye-ball a uranium mixture, triggering a chain-reaction that went unchecked for 20 hours.

Regulators failed to ensure that safety alarms were installed at the plant run by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. because they believed there was “no possibility” of a major accident at the facility, according to an analysis by the NRC in the U.S. The report said there were ‘indications’ the company instructed workers to take shortcuts, without regulatory approval.

In 2004, an eruption of super-heated steam from a burst pipe at a reactor run by Kansai Electric killed five workers and scalded six others. A government investigation showed the burst pipe section had been omitted from safety checklists and had not been inspected for the 28 years the plant had been in operation.

Unlike France and the U.S., which have independent regulators, responsibility for keeping Japan’s reactors safe rests with the same body that oversees the effort to increase nuclear power generation: the Trade Ministry. Critics say that creates a conflict of interest that may hamper safety.

“What is necessary is a qualified, well-funded, independent regulator,” said Seth Grae, chief executive officer of Lightbridge Corp. (LTBR), a nuclear consultant in the U.S. “What happens when you have an independent regulatory agency, you can have a utility that has scandals and lies, but the regulator will yank its licensing approvals,” he said.

Tanaka says his book on the experiences he had with the nuclear power industry went out of print in 2000. His publisher called on March 13, two days after the Fukushima earthquake, and said they were starting another print run.

“Maybe this time people will listen,” he said.

Jason Clenfield, Japan Nuclear Disaster Caps Decades of Faked Reports, Accidents. Bloomberg.com., Mar 18, 2011