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     Feb 10, 2007
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Japanese nuclear power steams ahead
By Hisane Masaki

TOKYO - Japan's New National Energy Strategy calling for increased use of nuclear power to generate electricity and, more controversially, the need to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for future use to power reactors has run into trouble because of repeated accidents and mishaps at various plants.

So it was considered something of a victory for nuclear power generation when the Mihama-3 reactor in Fukui prefecture in western Japan resumed full-scale commercial operation on Wednesday, two and a half years after it was shut down in the

wake of the nation's deadliest accident at a nuclear power plant.

The 826-megawatt pressurized-water reactor, owned by the Kansai Electric Power Co (KEPCO), was shut down in August 2004 after a steam pipe on the non-radioactive side of the plant ruptured, scalding 11 workers, five of whom died.

After full-scale commercial operations were resumed at the reactor, KEPCO president Shosuke Mori posted a statement on the company website offering "heartfelt apologies" again to the victims of the accident and their families. He vowed never to let a similar accident happen again, saying, "Safeguarding safety is my own and my company's mission."

KEPCO has 11 nuclear reactors, all of them in Fukui prefecture. It is dependent on nuclear power for about 60% of its electricity generation, the highest percentage among Japanese utilities. With the full resumption of operations at the Mihama-3, the capacity utilization rate of KEPCO's reactors for the current fiscal year ending March 31 will go up 1.8 percentage points to 77%.

The accident was a prime example of why many Japanese harbor reservations about the management of the country's extensive network of nuclear power plants. The ruptured pipe had not been inspected even once in the 28 years since the reactor was first put into operation in 1976. The pipe had corroded from its original thickness of 10 millimeters to 0.4mm, far below the national standard of 4.7mm.

In addition to replacing the ruptured carbon-steel pipe with one made of more corrosion-resistant stainless steel, KEPCO took measures to prevent a recurrence, including strengthening management of the secondary cooling-water system and relocating the headquarters of its nuclear-plant business from Osaka to Mihama, a town of about 11,400 people.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, affiliated with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), approved the utility's safety measures last March. Two months later, the Fukui prefectural government and the Mihama town office gave their official go-aheads for the utility to resume operations. KEPCO confirmed the safety of the pipes at the reactor during a test run in September and October.

Some of the families of the accident victims opposed the restart, saying it was too early. But KEPCO president Mori visited the families of the five victims at the end of last year to explain the necessity of resuming commercial operations. After the meeting, KEPCO felt it had obtained the consent of the bereaved families to resume operations, the firm said.

Fukui prefectural police are still investigating the accident for possible charges of professional negligence resulting in bodily injury and death. Investigators are looking into whether employees and others knew the pipe could rupture and, if so, who was responsible for their management and supervising duties.

A tarnished reputation
The Mihama-3 accident isn't the only incident that has tarnished the reputation of Japan's nuclear-power industry, which is the world's third-largest in terms of the number of plants in operation. Japan's largest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), recently admitted that it falsified data at its nuclear plants for three decades in an attempt to pass compulsory government inspections easily. TEPCO said it had discovered falsifications of technical data on nearly 200 occasions from 1977 to 2002 at three nuclear plants and reported them as requested.

In December, METI ordered the company to review past data after the company's discovery that cooling-water data had been falsified at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture in the late 1980s. The company also faked test operations at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture in 1992, when an emergency core cooling-system pump failed during a government inspection.

TEPCO came under fire after another safety-data cover-up scandal in 2002, stirring public distrust of Japan's nuclear industry and forcing the then chairman and the president of the company to resign to take responsibility.

Another key to the future of the nation's nuclear-energy program is the fast-breeder reactor (FBR), which produces more fissile material than it consumes. But the prototype FBR Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture, has remained shut down since the liquefied sodium used to cool the reactor core leaked and burned

Continued 1 2 

Asia's new nuclear race (Dec 21, '06)

India on power trip as nuke deal advances (jun 29, '06)

China embraces the atom (Mar 4, '06)


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