How Tokaimura Shook Europe
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
As nuclear facilities throughout Europe continue to deteriorate with age their state of security is coming under increasing scrutiny. Tens of facilities throughout Europe are over 20 years old and although they have been placed under constant renovation their basic structures remain volatile to age. Reinforcing the fear of lax security systems in such plants was a recent incident at a nuclear facility in Spain where several Greenpeace activists managed to sneak into the plant's grounds and climb on top of the facility without being noticed by the security guards until the media arrived the next day. The entire operation revealed the ease with which terrorists and criminals could potentially access such facilities with the objective of terrorizing the general population. Although, the European Union has been "accident free" some think it is just a matter of time before this changes for the worse.
Curiously enough, it was Japan that sparked intense debate within the European Parliament over the state of the EU's nuclear energy facilities and policy. For fear of emulating what happened in Tokaimura in September 1999, EU policy has come under intense review. This week's EU report would like to take a look back in time to document how EU parliamentarians (EP's) reacted to the Tokaimura incident.
The parliamentary debate erupted shortly after the Tokaimura accident happened. According to official records of the proceedings the reaction was overwhelmingly shocking and eventually forced the EU Parliament to adopt a bill submitted by the Green Party that called for a full-scale review of EU nuclear energy policy, including its exports of MOX to Japan.
The consensus was that all accidents in all industries were tragic, however, as Representative McNally (PSE) stated, "accidents in nuclear installations, especially criticality accidents, are the most feared of all accidents" as they can potentially kill hundreds of thousands of people and change the biological landscape for thousands of years. The impact that the Tokaimura accident had on the EU was to destroy the belief in the safety culture of the industry.
Parliamentarians claimed that "the fact that nuclear accidents can happen even in a technologically advanced country such as Japan demonstrated that nuclear energy is never safe". Representative Ahern (Green Party / Germany) exclaimed that the nuclear industry had gone too far by ignoring safeguards that were already in place and insisted that Europe had a link to what happened in Tokaimura. "All over the world," stated Ahern, "nuclear authorities insist that an accident like that in Japan could not happen anywhere else. Different processes will ensure that the chain reactions do not start. But in Britain, BNFL has recently admitted the falsifications of safety checks on MOX fuel while in Japan the authorities have found that the plant at Tokaimura was operating illegally for four years". Ahern concluded by stating that "the nuclear industry is clearly out of control" and called upon the nuclear industry to shut down all together.
Surely enough, as had been suggested by Ahern, certain parliamentary members such as Karoutchi (PPE / France) claimed that the Tokaimura accident happened because, "the Japanese authorities recognized that the safety procedures, both in the conversion plant and in the fuel production plant, had not been followed". Thus, the accident was not due to the inherent danger of nuclear energy but due to criminal behavior on the part of Japanese plant managers and operators. The same representative claimed that, "the initiation of a nuclear chain reaction as a result of faulty handling by an operator is practically impossible in Europe". That is what happened in Tokaimura. Another representative seconded Karoutchi's point and went so far as to claim that an illegal handbook had been produced by the management in Japan telling workers to operate in a manner that breached regulations. Such a thing was thought to be inconceivable in Europe.
In addition to criticism of what caused the accident and of how Japan handled it, the EU Parliament took issue with MOX shipments to Japan from the British cities of Cherbourg and Sellafield. Apparently, British Nuclear Fuel admitted that safety data relating to MOX shipments had been falsified. Although, these shipments did not go to Tokaimura, there was danger that this could provoke accidents at sea and on land in Japan. This was proof that, despite strict regulations in Europe, illegal and negligent activity took place, giving rise to the possibility of a nuclear accident involving Europe.
EP's called for Japan to engage in an exhaustive study and make all information available to the EU so that they could also learn from this incident. To some it was incomprehensible that Japan was moving ahead with its plans to build another 20 reactors by 2010 on top of the existing 51 plants despite this tragedy. The conclusion reached by these members was that milder and renewable energy sources were the only solution to the energy problem of post-industrial society.
Ultimately, the EP resolved to undertake a full-scale review of its nuclear facilities including the renewal of training in nuclear safety for operators and other workers in the different types of nuclear facilities throughout the EU. The EP also promised to conduct extensive research on the safety culture in the nuclear sector and to inspect the safety mechanisms of each and every facility. This was both to prevent an accident and build public confidence in this industry.
The fact that the Tokaimura accident sparked a comprehensive review of the EU's entire nuclear energy apparatus demonstrates the fragility under which the nuclear industry as a whole operates. The message that Tokaimura sent to Europe was that no matter how advanced and safe nuclear reactors may be, the possibility of human error and negligence starting a chain reaction that develops into a tragic accident always exists. This has effectively prevented the general public from placing much faith in the industry as a whole.
As was highlighted at the outset of this article, recent security blunders in certain European facilities has reminded many of the horror and terror experienced in Tokaimura. They are reminded of the 300,000 residents that were locked up in their homes for three days fearing for their lives, not to mention those who died in the accident itself. The fact that such accidents affect the psychology, behavior and policies of people and governments on the other side of the globe stresses the impact that regulatory and safety policies/behavior in one country have on others when it relates to an industry such as nuclear power.