25 June 2011

Propaganda Yes, Safety No

The more we learn about the incompetence of Japanese nuclear power operators the more discouraging it gets. This fascinating article in the New York Times reveals some astonishing facts about how much Japanese government and industry invested in brainwashing the public about the absolute safety of nuclear power generation. Of course nuclear power is very safe (see this earlier post for a comparison with coal, and this post for an overall review of the cost of the Fukushima disaster). But blind belief that "nothing can go wrong" has made the current Fukushima disaster much worse.
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This year, 2011, the Japanese government is spending $12 million on propaganda programs promoting the absolute safety of nuclear power generation, and the nuclear industry is propably spending as much again (see NYT article). Yet both the industry and government resisted for decades spending on robot technology that could be helpful in the case of a disaster like Fukushima, and on plant upgrades and safety measures that could have minimized the damage at Fukushima. In convincing the Japanese public that nuclear power generation was absolutely safe, the industry convinced itself that it didn't have to use the latest safety improvements. They saved a few yen and ran unnecessary risks, and now it is costing them.

Although the full analysis of the cost-cutting and other safety compromises at Fukushima (and, of course, at other Japanese nuclear power plants) is yet to be completed, there are several obvious issues:
  • Although told that a big tsunami was possible, TEPCO, Fukushima Number One's operator, decided not to build a tsunami wall robust enough to prevent damage from a big one. Many other nuclear power plants in Japan still face this same vulnerability.
  • Obviously TEPCO hadn't felt it necessary to invest in more disaster-resistant backup power supplies.
  • Flimsy ducting for venting hydrogen was damaged early in the accident, letting hydrogen into the reactor containment building spaces where it later exploded, adding significantly to the damage and the difficulty of managing the disaster. Nuclear plants elsewhere recognized this vulnerability and built more robust hydrogen stacks.
  • Japan had no robots suitable for use in damaged nuclear power plants, though such robots had been found useful at Chernoble and Three Mile Island, and were manufactured in other countries in anticipation of employment in nuclear accidents.
  • TEPCO didn't have enough radiation badges for the workers who were rushed to the site to try to deal with the disaster, or proper training or procedures for working in high-radiation conditions. It wasn't able to track the workers or their radiation exposure. It blames this on its contractors and subcontractors. (See Mainichi Daily News and this Reuters story.)
The hundreds of millions the Japanese government and nuclear industry have spent over the years to convince the public that nuclear power was "absolutely safe" might, if spent on safety upgrades, training, and preparation, have actually made it more safe. It could have prevented the Fukushima disaster, which is undermining the credibility of industry and government and causing the public to question its blind support of nuclear power generation and its cozy regulation. These continuing revelations of joint incompetence could have long-term political repercussions in Japan.

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