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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:30 03/09/2007
Debate: Nuclear Policy

The Tokaimura Nuclear Accident

Panel Discussion
Center for Global Communications
November 25, 1999


Yoichi MASUZOE, GLOCOM (Member of government Nuclear Commission)

Other Participants:

Patricia LANGAN (Former Fortune Correspondent)


Japan's nuclear policy in the aftermath of the accident at the Tokaimura nuclear fuel fabrication facility operated by JCO Co. was discussed. Two main questions were addressed:

  1. How to prevent another nuclear accident in Japan? Is the government's contingency plan good enough to deal with another accident?
  2. Should Japan's nuclear energy policy be reassessed? What should be Japan's future energy policy?

Summary of the discussion

DOLAN: Before we tackle the question of the Tokai nuclear accident I think it is important to grasp the full picture of Japan's nuclear situation. Japan committed itself to a nuclear power policy in 1955. Since then it has built 18 nuclear power sites and is operating 51 commercial units. All 51 units are Light Water Reactors (LWR), which produce 12% of Japan's total energy, including electricity. The government plans to increase this number to 17% by 2010.

In 1996, 34.6% of Japan's total electricity generation was nuclear. The government plans to increase this to 45% by 2010. After the U.S. and France, Japan has the third largest nuclear generation capacity in the world. However, increases in nuclear power generation world-wide over the next decade will come almost totally from four countries namely, Japan, South Korea, China and India.

Nuclear accidents are not new to Japan. In February 1994 Japan began experimental power generation with a Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) in Monju, but the plant was shut down in December 1995 due to a leak of nearly half a metric ton of liquid sodium. The Tokaimura accident must be seen in this context.

MASUZOE: The Tokaimura nuclear accident was not a technical accident. The accident was a result of human error. As such the focus should be placed on how to prevent human error. In connection to this, two bills were passed yesterday by the Diet. One was a modification to the current nuclear regulations act. This bill was adopted unanimously. Second, a new law dealing with appropriate preventive measures against a nuclear disaster was also proposed.

The key issue is that this was not a technical error but a human error. When I heard of this accident I was shocked. As one who has been involved in Japan's nuclear program for 25 years I could not believe that Japanese engineers could have made such a mistake. They were poorly trained. A series of accidents like this has been happening in Japan and I am losing confidence in Japanese engineers. It is clear that there is also the issue of cost. However, it is critical that we refocus on how engineers are being trained and also rebuild the lost morale within Japanese society.

MAEDA: I would like to propose a different viewpoint, namely the viewpoint of the industry. Eleven years ago I was assistant director of the nuclear power plant division in MITI. I asked many questions of the experts. Is Monju safe? Can we construct the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) by the year 2010? Experts always assured us. It turned out that our suspicions were correct and the experts were wrong.

The cause of this accident is due to a failure in industrial policy. Originally, JCO was built to produce fuels for Monju (a FBR). When Monju failed the market size diminished greatly. In order to create stable management the Science and Technology Agency should have initiated various stabilization policies such as price determination, market prices, and financing measures. However, the Science and Technology Agency took no measures. If the Science and Technology is incapable of taking such initiatives then somebody else should take its place.

YAMANOUCHI: This accident was caused by engineers utilizing the facilities in a way for which the facilities were not designed. The reason for this was budgetary. The entire allocated budget for this facility was 20 million-yen. If Monju had worked Joyo would have had sufficient funds, however, because Monju failed JCO had to be satisfied with Joyo's minimum budget. This was clearly insufficient.

DOLAN: Does Japan's nuclear energy policy need to be revised?

YAMANOUCHI: My opinion is that it is entirely mistaken to decide that Japanese nuclear policy is flawed based on this incident. The failure happened because the budget has been reduced.

MASUZOE: So your solution is that the budget should be increased?

YAMANOUCHI: Yes, that is my suggestion.

MAEDA: Japan should trash its nuclear policy. The nuclear policy was developed for the FBR. However, as we will never see the days where FBR is safely operating the policy is defunct. It is ridiculous to continue this plutonium recycling policy in order to produce mixed oxide fuel (MOX). Japanese should only operate its lightwater reactors.

MASUZOE: I suggest that we continue the current policy. The difficult point is dealing with plutonium. How do you cope with plutonium if you produce it? The first option is to recycle it. The second is to put it "once through". However, what then? With the amount of plutonium available Japan can make 500 atomic bombs right now.

DOLAN: I believe that the Japanese government should take a close look at renewable energy sources. This will take huge economic resources. Currently solar energy is not a viable option but if 90% of Japanese energy R&D is being spent on nuclear energy I would suggest that we use 40-50% of these resources on renewable energy source research. Renewables are very expensive and difficult to harness but over the long-term we really need to take a look at those alternatives.

MASUZOE: A point that we must consider is the supply side stability of renewable resources. They are very unstable. We need to have a stable energy source. Cost and stability are two key issues.

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