Ready to Die for TEPCO?

The series of major nuclear accidents at the Fukushima Number One Nuclear Power Plant that began with the earthquake and tsunami on the afternoon of 11 March this year is, at the time of writing twelve weeks later, unending and uncontrolled. In mid-May the owner and operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), finally admitted that the nuclear fuel cores of three of the six reactors at Fukushima No. 1 had indeed melted down. This was followed by the resignation of the company’s hapless president, an announcement of the largest corporate loss in Japanese history, and the downgrading of TEPCO shares to junk status by international credit rating agencies. After months of confusion, prevarication, obfuscation and provision of outright misinformation to both the public and government of Japan, TEPCO’s most serious collision with the physics and engineering of reality came at the end of May when the company conceded that its previous statement that it would achieve ‘cold shutdown’ of the three reactors by the end of the year was not simply not possible. This amounted to a nuclear industry admission of the most fundamental fears of its critics―that a foreseeable and predicted sequence of accident at nuclear power plants could result in a threat to human security that approached the limits of effective control.

Prior to Fukushima, nuclear generation of electricity had re-emerged onto the global public agenda after more than a quarter of a century of post-Chernobyl recession in the guise of a putative greenhouse gas emission mitigation strategy, heavily promoted by the nuclear industry and allies and admirers in government and academia. Even before Fukushima, the much touted ‘nuclear renaissance’ was in doubt, principally because of nuclear economics and construction times, the closing of the financial gap between nuclear and new energy sources, a decline in likely availability of government subsidies, and the wholly implausible number of nuclear power plants required in a climate change salvation scenario.

Despite Fukushima, nuclear power in Japan will not die immediately, although it is mortally wounded and will never recover. The global rise in construction costs that will follow from increased safety concerns will vitiate many of the cost-reduction benefits derived from the incremental improvement and standardisation of design and construction that have kept Japanese (and Korean) nuclear costs lower than those of other countries over the past two decades. The multiple official reviews of the causes and consequences of the Fukushima sequence of accidents will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of retrofitting and redesign of existing reactors, as well as changes in future design requirements. While the Fukushima No. 1 reactors have already been written off (with massive costs far beyond normal expensive decommissioning costs), thirty-four of the country’s remaining fifty-four commercial reactors are also offline for inspection and review. One measure of the likely complexity and duration of the reviews of some of these of apparently undamaged reactors is the experience at Japan’s largest nuclear power station at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, where the plant’s six large reactors shut down automatically in September 2007 following the M6.8 Chuetsu undersea earthquake off the coast of Niigata. Almost four years later, at the time of the Fukushima earthquake, three of the reactors were still offline, pending further investigations. More importantly, in the wake of that earthquake, authorities repeated local seismic studies conducted almost three decades ago and discovered a range of faults undetected by the seismological studies possible at the time of the plant’s construction, leading to a comprehensive rewriting of Japan’s nuclear seismic guidelines. That process, writ large, will now start again.

Nuclear power in Japan is a product of a particular version of Japan’s doken kokka, or construction state. In it the general model of a corporate–state alliance to build largely unjustifiable expensive infrastructure projects was fused with a vision of a plutonium economy that would free the resource-poor country from dependence on energy imports. At the heart of the vision of the plutonium economy were some of the largest of Japan’s impressive white elephant population―the Monju and Joyo breeder reactors, which were to generate an endless supply of fissile material to then be used as fuel for other reactors, and the $91 billion Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which is planned to produce more than eight tonnes of plutonium a year. A nuclear alliance made up of nuclear plant manufacturers, electricity utilities, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and national and local politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Party of Japan has battled with widespread and resilient grassroots campaigns against nuclear power. Despite the massive imbalance of resources, including longstanding collusive and corrupt practices that have buttressed elements of the nuclear alliance, and intimidation and silencing of even senior conservative politicians, almost as many nuclear facilities were stopped by local campaigns as were finally constructed.

Fukushima will threaten the hold of the Japanese nuclear complex on decision-making in at least three ways. Firstly, a considerable amount of previously suppressed information is coming to light―not only from the electric power companies like TEPCO, already a byword for a corporate culture of malfeasance and impunity. The regulatory agencies attached to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, especially the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), have been shown to have been grossly delinquent, and possibly actually collusive with TEPCO, in earlier seismic safety assessments. On 3 June NISA admitted that it had suppressed the fact that it had detected radioactive Telerium (Te-132) six kilometres from the reactor site on the morning of 12 March, the day after the earthquake, an indication that meltdown was already underway.

Needless to say, public trust in nuclear power and its regulation has been shaken. More importantly, it is clear that the trust mainstream politicians had vested in the nuclear complex has been badly shaken. While his opponents in his own party and in the opposition LDP are eager to bring down Prime Minister Kan Naoto, very few would have wanted to swap places with him in the months after the earthquake as his administration was blindsided by TEPCO and NISA, and as a result he looked, as he actually was, virtually powerless to affect events significantly.

Secondly, even before Fukushima the strength of local opposition throughout the country was such that there was almost no likelihood of new nuclear facilities receiving local government planning permissions. Onsite spent nuclear fuel storage has reached capacity at most Japanese nuclear plants, and the Mutsu Interim Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Facility will not open until at least 2012. There is no prospect of permanent spent nuclear fuel storage facility being constructed in Japan, or anywhere else. Spent fuel was stored in eight different locations at Fukushima No.1 NPP―in six reactors’ spent fuel storage ponds, an independent spent fuel pool, and an independent dry cask facility. With frequent substantial aftershocks continuing in the region, the greatest ongoing danger remains the possibility of a structural collapse of the earthquake-, blast- and fire-damaged spent fuel storage pond above Reactor No. 4, with complete loss of coolant to the large amount of spent fuel in the pond.

Thirdly, as noted, nuclear power in Japan is a product of a particular version of Japan’s construction state, and its vision of a plutonium economy. That dream, always a matter of fantasy, is shattered. The immediate alternative is for ‘once-through’ use of nuclear fuel, from which the waste is then stored forever, without reprocessing. The real question is how long this fall-back position itself will be viable in Japan.

Not surprisingly, the nuclear industry in Japan displays many of the characteristics of the wider social formation, now several decades into a state of disarray as the postwar social structure of accumulation―summarised as ‘Japan Incorporated’―continues to lose its mojo, and the outline of a new order remains elusive. While the most obvious examples of this are the lack of political and bureaucratic effectiveness and coherence in decision making, the dirty secret of Japanese labour is being played out once again at Fukushima, through the use of day-labourers. The great majority of workers recruited to work in the highly dangerous environment at Fukushima since the earthquake have been contract employees (hiseisha’in), hired for about AUD 100 a day by a subcontractor to work for TEPCO. Historically, much of Japan’s postwar construction depended on the labour of men hired by labour-bosses, often with yakuza links, from highly depressed areas of big cities, such as Tokyo’s San’ya and Osaka’s Kamigasaki, from backgrounds of unemployment, mental and physical ill-health, family breakdown and social isolation. These days an SMS message on a mobile phone replaces the early morning labour call in the yoseba.

Radiation levels inside the reactor and turbine buildings of Units 1, 2 and 3 are extremely high, and a fifteen minute exposure, even in a completely sealed suit, is equivalent to the maximum exposure for a US nuclear worker over five years. In other places on the site, while radiation levels remain high, they are probably not lethal if proper procedures are followed and repeat exposures restricted. The problem is that in recruiting day-labourers the nuclear industry is repeating its earlier history of hiring ‘nuclear gypsies’, whose exposure levels are not properly monitored as they move from job to job, and whose work situation is such that they may rapidly accumulate dangerous levels of radiation exposure. Even before Fukushima, nuclear contract workers routinely had the highest monitored levels of exposure. SMS and Twitter messages calling for Fukushima day-labourers after the earthquake were offering 10,000 yen a day. One forty-eight-year-old worker living nearby declined an offer which went: ‘We are looking for people over fifty who could intervene in the reactor; the pay is much higher than usual’. As the sociologist Paul Jobin remarked in Japan Focus, ‘The wording “over fifty” suggests that in order to come work on the site, you must be ready to die …’

Five Nuclear Questions for Japan

The answers to five questions will indicate just how long the mortally wounded Japanese nuclear industry will take to finally die.

1. Will the liberalisation of Japanese energy markets be extended to the nuclear industry, allowing the market realities of nuclear power generation without subsidy shape decision making?

2. Will the electric utilities, now so reliant upon nuclear power generation, remain committed to it? After the German electricity sector’s sudden conversion to a non-nuclear future following the lead from Chancellor Angela Merkel, questions may begin to be asked in Tokyo boardrooms.

3. Can elected politicians form a Japanese government that will take control of nuclear policy? Here the nuclear sector is a canary in the coalmine for the wider key issue of Japanese politicians wresting control of policy from unelected bureaucracies, and hence being capable of taking responsibility for policy.

4. Can an elected government admit the failure of the chimera of the plutonium economy? Minimally, this would be the reconstruction of a system-rational mode of Japanese capitalist democracy that does not waste billions of tax-payers’ dollars on white elephant infrastructure. Beyond that is the darkest side of the plutonium economy, the other chimera of nuclear power, the not-so-hidden fantasy of indigenous nuclear weapons development.

5. Can a Japanese government break through encrusted, vested interests to direct a new energy policy? Ideally, this should be based on a mix of high energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and a mix of centralised and distributed power generation. In late May, Prime Minister Kan announced a target of 20 per cent of electricity generation by 2020, a decade ahead of pre-Fukushima plans.

Five Questions for Australians

1. Will Australia resist the temptations of high-level nuclear waste disposal and uranium enrichment, the pathway to the bomb?

2. Can the push-back by the Australian nuclear power boosters in government, business and academia be resisted?

3. Will the Fukushima disaster lead to more than just another round of cost increases; will it lead to a more fundamental, informed critique?

4. Will social movements be able to generate adequate pressure to erode the hidden financial protections that sustain the nuclear state–corporate complex?

5. Contra the current trajectory for planetary disaster, will the collapse of the illusion of the nuclear option as a fallback strategy generate sufficient psychic and political pressure for potentially viable climate change action?

By Richard Tanter

Richard Tanter is Senior Research Associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.

*An extended, footnoted version of this article will be available at <>.



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