IAEA to inspect quake-struck Japanese plant

After initially refusing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s offer of assistance, the Japanese government said July 22 that it would permit IAEA inspectors to visit the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, damaged last week by an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said the government would cooperate with the IAEA inspectors. “It will be important for Japan and the IAEA to work together and to analyze the results carefully,” he told journalists. “We will cooperate with the inspectors and will probably be making the inspections together.”

The IAEA inspection was requested by the governor of Niigata prefecture, Hirohiko Izumida. IAEA personnel are expected to arrive in early August.

The July 16 quake killed 10 people, injured more than 1,800, and forced thousands more to leave their homes for makeshift shelters. Nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed and over 700 more severely damaged.

When seismic data from the quake was analyzed, it was revealed that the plant, which was built to withstand a quake of 6.5 on the Richter scale, sits on a previously unknown fault line.

The quake caused a fire, leakage of water containing radioactive material into the sea, and a spill of low-level radioactive waste. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., was widely criticized for issuing initial reports minimizing the quake’s effect, which it later had to correct.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is the world’s largest nuclear power facility in terms of output. Japan’s nuclear power plants provide 30 percent of the country’s electric power.

The plants have been plagued with safety problems. In 2005, a Tokyo court dismissed a lawsuit filed by 33 people living near the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility, who alleged the government had not conducted sufficient safety reviews when the plant was built in the 1970s.

Last week’s quake also raised broader concerns about increasing reliance on nuclear power in Japan and other countries.

Hideaki Ban, director of the Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, told Inter Press Service that the accident showed poor planning and illustrated the government’s determination to expand nuclear power in tandem with leading electric power firms.

“There have been several accidents in nuclear plants across Japan but officials toe the same line — revisions rather than holding Japanese operators of nuclear reactors responsible by stopping the plants,” he said. “The target is money rather than safety.”

Greenpeace International’s Jan Beranek told IPS, “Nuclear power undermines real solutions to climate change, by diverting resources away from the massive development of clean energy the world urgently needs. What’s more,” he added, “climate change will increase natural disasters, in turn posing a greater risk to nuclear power plants, and to our safety.”

The nationwide newspaper Asahi Shimbun this week cited a government probe following the July 16 quake and fire, that found 10 of Japan’s 11 companies operating nuclear power plants are not equipped to fight a fire at their nuclear facilities.

Although the 10 other utilities maintained in-house fire squads, only a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. had fulltime firefighters on duty around the clock. The newspaper noted that since the quake damaged water pipes used by the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant’s fire-extinguishing system, not enough water was available to put out the fire. The blaze was finally doused by firefighters two hours later.

mbechtel @pww.org