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Is Australian uranium fuelling Japan’s looming nuclear disaster?

Explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Latest: The British Independent reported on March 16 that four of Japan’s atomic reactors are in dire trouble at once, three threatening meltdown from overheating, and a fourth hit by a fire in its storage pond for radioactive spent fuel; radiation at about 20 times normal levels had been detected in Tokyo.

By Jim Green

March 16, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – There’s every likelihood that radioactive by-products of Australian uranium have been spewing into the atmosphere from the crippled nuclear reactor plant at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. Despite being a major uranium supplier to Japan, Australia has turned a blind eye to serious, protracted problems with Japan’s nuclear industry and it’s time for a more responsible approach.

The earthquake and tsunami on March 11 led to the automatic shut-down of the operating nuclear reactors at Fukushima. However the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) failed in its duty to maintain back-up electricity supply to run pumps to cool the intensely hot and radioactive nuclear cores. At times the situation has been farcical, as when generators were brought to the site only to find that the plugs didn’t fit. The failure to maintain adequate cooling has led to a raft of problems including explosions, fire and deliberate and uncontrolled releases of radiation.

Earthquakes have affected several nuclear plants in Japan. The most serious was the major 2007 earthquake which led to the shutdown of all of TEPCO’s operating reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata − not far from Fukushima, but on the west coast. Radiation was released from two reactor buildings, from a pool containing spent nuclear fuel rods, and from 40 drums of nuclear waste which fell over and lost their lids.

There is a history of distrust surrounding TEPCO. All of TEPCO’s reactors were involved in a 2002 safety data falsification scandal which led to protracted reactor shut-downs for inspections and repairs. The “malpractices” were revealed to have been many and varied and to have been ongoing for as long as 25 years. There have been numerous other incidents of data falsification involving reactors in Japan since the 2002 scandal, and further revelations about previous incidents such as TEPCO’s concealment of an emergency shut-down of one of the reactors at Fukushima in 1984.

Distrust of TEPCO grew as a result of the 2007 earthquake in Niigata. The company provided conflicting information over a period of several days, and later acknowledged that the radiation releases would have been reduced if procedures were correctly followed. Nuclear Engineering International reported: “Japan's nuclear industry has been suffering in the glare of negative publicity brought about by revelations that operators had covered up accidents and problems for decades. When it became public knowledge, it was hoped that the public relations disaster that companies were engineering for themselves might lead the wider industry to realise the potential benefits of being more open and honest when problems do crop up. That hope seems to have withered again in Niigata.”

Mismanagement

A growing list of accidents are testament to the mismanagement of nuclear power in Japan. Some of the more serious accidents include:

  • a sodium leak and fire at the Monju fast breeder in 1995
  • a reprocessing waste explosion at Tokai in 1997
  • 50 tonnes of primary coolant leaked from a reactor at Tsuruga in 1999, leading to a sharp increase of radiation levels inside the reactor building
  • following a criticality accident at a uranium conversion plant at Tokaimura in 1999, two people died and hundreds were irradiated
  • in 2001, a water pipe at Hamaoka-1 exploded, releasing radioactive steam into the containment building
  • in 2002, 16 workers were irradiated after a water pipe leak at Hamaoka-2.
  • at the Mihama nuclear power plant in 2005, a pipe failed due to corrosion, resulting in the deaths of five workers and injuries to six others; the thickness of the failed pipe had not been checked since the plant went into operation in 1976.

A vicious cycle is evident. Mismanagement and slack regulation beget accidents and scandals. The authorities respond with denial and deceit which later gives way to profuse apologies, resignations and solemn promises of improved performance in future. Then it’s business as usual ... mismanagement and slack regulation beget the next accident or scandal and the cycle repeats.

The pattern of mismanagement, accidents and scandals is reflected in public opinion. A 2005 survey by the International Atomic Energy Agency found that just 21 per cent of Japanese citizens support the construction of new reactors; 76 per cent are opposed. Of the 18 countries surveyed, only four were more strongly opposed to the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Australian uranium

BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto export uranium from Australia to TEPCO from the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia and the Ranger mines in the Northern Territory. As a major uranium supplier, Australia could play a role in breaking the vicious cycle by making uranium exports conditional on improved management of nuclear plants and tighter regulation. Indeed we have a responsibility to either insist on better performance or to cease uranium exports to Japan. The business-as-usual option makes us complicit in the ongoing fiasco of Japan's nuclear industry.

We are also complicit in fanning regional proliferation tensions by providing Japan with open-ended permission to separate and stockpile weapons-useable plutonium produced in power reactors from Australian uranium. A 1993 US diplomatic cable posed these questions: “Can Japan expect that if it embarks on a massive plutonium recycling program that Korea and other nations would not press ahead with reprocessing programs? Would not the perception of Japan's being awash in plutonium and possessing leading edge rocket technology create anxiety in the region?”

Since 1993, Japan’s plutonium stockpile has grown enormously and regional tensions are sharper than ever. Yet Australia continues to provide open-ended approval for Japan to stockpile plutonium.

And Australia continues to turn a blind eye to the pattern of accidents, scandals and cover-ups.

Hooray for hypocrisy.

[Dr Jim Green is the coordinator of the Choose Nuclear Free project, a collaboration between the Medical Association for Prevention of War, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Friends of the Earth, Australia.]

Comments

Australia's Responsibility?

IS it really Austrlia's responsibility as the provider of the Uranium. They are not the one's utilising it in power plants on a known fault line.

I know the quake was huge, but surely when the risk of injury is so high, should these plants not be better protected. The responsibility should solely lie with Japan for this.

Spinning Fukushima - Australian nuke scientists

The following article "Spinning Fukushima" by Jim Green was also published at Online Opinion

How have Australian scientists handled the difficult task of keeping us informed about the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan? The first thing to note is that precious few Australian scientists have featured in the media. The most prominent have been Prof Aidan Byrne from the Australian National University, RMIT Chancellor Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and Prof. Barry Brook from Adelaide University.

A clear pattern is evident − those with the greatest ideological attachment to nuclear power have provided the most inaccurate commentary.

The best of the bunch has been Prof. Byrne. He has presented the facts as he understands them and has willingly acknowledged major information gaps.

Dr Switkowski has been gently spinning the issue, repeatedly reassuring us that lessons will be learned, improvements will be made. However, history shows that nuclear lessons are not properly learned. The OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency notes that lessons may be learned but too often they are subsequently forgotten, or they are learned but by the wrong people, or they are learned but not acted upon. The Nuclear Energy Agency says the pattern of the same type of accident recurring time and time again at different nuclear plants needs to be "much improved".

The situation in Japan illustrates the point − it has become increasingly obvious over the past decade that greater protection against seismic risks is necessary, but the nuclear utilities haven't wanted to spend the money and the Japanese nuclear regulator and the government haven't forced the utilities to act.

Prof. Brook is a strident nuclear power advocate and host of the bravenewclimate.com blog, which has received an astonishing half a million web 'hits' since the crisis in Japan began. Prof. Brook has egg on his face. Make that an omelette. He has maintained a running commentary in the media and on his website insisting that the situation is under control and that there is no reason for concern.

His message remained unchanged even as it was revealed that efforts to cool the nuclear reactor cores were meeting with mixed success, even as deliberate and uncontrolled radiation releases occurred, even as the outer containment buildings exploded, even as 200,000 people were being evacuated, even as a fire led to spent nuclear fuel releasing radiation directly to the environment, and even as radiation monitors detected alarming jumps in radioactivity near the reactor and low levels of radiation as far away as Tokyo.

On Saturday, Prof. Brook came out swinging, insisting that "There is no credible risk of a serious accident." Phew. That afternoon, after the first explosion at Fukushima, Prof. Brook made numerous assertions, most of which turned out to be wrong: "The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces. I am happy to be quoted forever after on the above if I am wrong ... but I won't be. The only reactor that has a small probability of being 'finished' is unit 1. And I doubt that, but it may be offline for a year or more."

On Saturday night, Prof. Brook asserted that: "When the dust settles, people will realise how well the Japanese reactors − even the 40 year old one − stood up to this incredibly energetic earthquake event." The dust is (hopefully) settling and it seems likely that four reactors will be write-offs.

On Sunday morning, Prof. Brook said of the unfolding disaster: "I don't see the ramifications of this as damaging at all to nuclear power's prospects" and that "it will provide a great conversation starter for talking intelligently to people about nuclear safety." But Fukushima will likely prove a great conversation starter for talking intelligently to people about nuclear hazards. Not recommended at parties.

On Sunday afternoon, Prof. Brook was congratulating himself on his 'just the facts' approach in media interviews. He pondered: "What has this earthquake taught us? That it's much, much riskier to choose to live next to the ocean than it is to live next to a nuclear power station." Well, the lesson for people in Fukushima is that if you live next to the ocean and next to a nuclear power station, then you're really stuffed.

On Monday, when the second explosion at Fukushima occurred, Prof. Brook was still insisting that "the nuclear reactors have come through remarkably well". On Monday evening, half a dozen people were banned from posting comments directly on Prof. Brook's website. True, some of their comments were silly and unhelpful, but by that criterion Prof. Brook ought to have banned himself.

On Tuesday, with a fire at Fukushima spewing long-lived radioisotopes directly into the environment, Prof. Brook was rallying the pro-nuclear lobby, arguing that "now, more than ever, we must stand up for what we believe is right" while introducing a guest web post by someone who announced that Japan gets electricity "from y nuclear reactors at z locations".

But cracks were starting to emerge by Tuesday night, with Prof. Brook acknowledging an "ongoing crisis situation", banning another 40-50 "random nobodies" from posting comments directly on his website, and quoting Rudyard Kipling:

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools

Make of that what you will.

One contributor to Prof. Brook's website said: "Unfortunately, Prof. Brook has really abdicated a neutral position on this event. His clear support of nuclear power seems to have impacted his critical thinking skills. ... Every time he states something in this crisis is 'impossible', it seems to happen the next day."

Prof. Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun has been urging people to read the "marvellously sane and cool explanation" from "our friend Professor Barry Brook". Both Prof. Bolt and Prof. Brook claim that no more than 50 people died from the Chernobyl catastrophe. More on that next month − the 25th anniversary falls on April 26. The scientific estimates of the Chernobyl death toll range from 9,000 to 93,000.

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