The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 T√Ö¬ćhoku earthquake and tsunami} by¬†Image courtesy of Digital Globe |Author =Digital Globe |Date =2011-03-16
Worldwide, safety regulators still see role as implementing nuclear industry plans
The ‘freeze’ on new nuclear has rapidly thawed.¬†China, France and the UK have all announced the ‘all clear’. Even in the U.S. as reported last week, (Friday, March 30, 2012 by Common Dreams) despite fears this week that the Fukushima nuclear accident, which Arnold Gundersen, (a former nuclear industry senior vice president) has described as “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind”, may be even worse [Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given approval for two new nuclear schemes. One¬† is for two nuclear reactors at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia [Gregory Jaczko. He objected to the licenses over the absence of guarantees to implement recommendations made following the Japanese disaster.
The recent US approvals have been interpreted as a victory for the lobbying powers of the nuclear industry but some analysts say that this is to misread the situation. This is because nuclear regulators worldwide have never seen their role as policing safety, but rather have acted as government-funded advisors to projects.
In 2000, for example, the Japanese Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency admitted to a scandalized public that for over 25 years,¬† documents relating to its safety inspections had been regularly falsified. It acknowledged no less than 200 such incidents, including concealing 19 ‘critical’ incidents and hiding three actual full-blown accidents, including one at the soon-to-be-infamous Fukushima complex.¬† Following this, the country’s major nuclear operator, TEPCO, shut down no less than 7 of its 17 reactors, pending a new inspection and correction of safety defects.
Despite this, by 2007, the situation in Japan was still such that when an earthquake caused the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to partially explode, the International Atomic Energy Agency privately expressed concern again at the lack of security at the site, and in 2008, during a meeting of the G7 industrialized countries in Tokyo, went further and warned that Japanese that ALL its reactors were unfit to cope with major earthquakes. Yet by 2011, the earthquake and tsunami was still able to wreak havoc in Japan because indeed, the Japanese regulator set plants a low bar on safety.
The reality is that although the International Atomic Energy Agency is famous for its draconian powers to stop states building nuclear bombs, it has no authority over national regulators, and must content itself with diplomatic recommendations given in private. Advice that the operators can choose to ignore, and often generally do.
Commenting on nuclear regulation in Japan, post Fukushima, Eisaku Sato, the governor of the province at the time that the secret cracks were revealed, was appalled that the regulators had allowed the company to continue operating such dangerous reactors. ‘An organization that is inherently untrustworthy is charged with ensuring the safety of Japans’s nuclear plants – the whole system is flawed. that’s frightening.’
A similar situation has been claimed to exist in the US. According to Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist responsible for national security issues in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1993 to 1994,¬† a dangerous custom has developed whereby only supporters of the nuclear industry are allowed to supervise it. Lobbyists have been allowed to have an effective veto over regulators who have ever been publicly critical of the industry.
In other key nuclear countries, the situation is even more alarming. In China, Kang Rixin, former general manager of the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp, was sentenced to life in jail last year for accepting bribes (and other abuses) raising questions about the quality of his work on the safety and trustworthiness of China’s nuclear reactors.
In India, where the nuclear regulator reports to the national Atomic Energy Commission, whose role is to promote the building of nuclear power plants, the revolving chair is also evident. The Chairman of the regulatory board there, S.S. Bajaj, was previously a senior executive at the Nuclear Power Corp. of India. And now this is now the key company he is now supposed to regulate.
Or in Europe, consider the case of the new so-called Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), to use the name it registered with US safety authority, the one promoted as ‘the safest reactor ever’. The French have applications in to build these in Normandy, on the French coast, in Finland, in Britain and even in the United States, applications which have been delayed by wrangling over safety.
There have been particular questions raised about overheating and fracturing of the control rods at the heart of the reactor, and about the ability of essential machinery to withstand small leaks of radiation.
Applications to build EPR plants in Britain and the United States have been delayed by requests for more investigations of these safety issues. But within France, the regulator approved a reactor on the Channel coast without asking for more research, in recognition of, in the words of Guillaume Wack, director of the French safety directorate itself, the fact that the cost of detailed testing would be too high for the industry to finance without the certainty of having at least one launch order.
The fuel for the new-style EPR reactors, called MOX, is also especially risky, being a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides. Harder to use, to store, and to cope with in the event of an accident, it is, however,¬† cheaper than the uranium fuel used in most reactors. Again, according to Guillaume Wack, the safety regulator, the sole motivation to take on this extra risk was purely economic. And of course he had no problem with that.
The key to understanding the recent and apparently contradictory approval of nuclear plants in the US, in the UK and in China, is that the chill that settled over the world-wide nuclear industry following Three Mile Island was essentially economic, not due to tighter regulation or increased safety requirements. Safety concerns are not driving anything. Instead, in the US what has now changed that is the opening up of a flood of public money. Just a year before Fukushima, President Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees to the Southern Company, the largest energy producer in the southeastern US, for the construction of those two new nuclear power plants in Waynesboro, Georgia, at the Vogtle power plant, on the South Carolina border [
Notes and additional links
1. Gundersen’s assessment of the true scale of the problems at Fukushima is reported in the Huffington Post at¬†click here
2. The Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization consists of various expert engineer groups joining together to “ensure the nuclear safety”. It runs a website athttp://www.jnes.go.jp/english/index.html¬†;
3. An article online, Japan earthquake: Japan warned over nuclear plants, WikiLeaks cables show, By Steven Swinford, and Christopher Hope
15 Mar 2011,¬† gives more details of how the Japanese regulator has historically minimised the need to protect plants against earthquakes.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8384059/Japan-earthquake-Japan-warned-over-nuclear-plants-WikiLeaks-cables-show.html
4. Mr. Bajaj says that despite being attached to the Atomic Energy Commission, his agency is “functionally independent” of the country’s nuclear establishment in an interview given to the New York Times the article relating to which, ‘Resistance to Jaitapur Nuclear Plant Grows in India’ (April 13, 2011)¬† is availabe at¬†click here
Martin Cohen is a well-established author specializing in popular books in philosophy, social science and politics.
He is best known for his two introductions to philosophy, 101 Philosophy Problems (Routledge 1999, 2001, 2007) and 101 Ethical Dilemmas (Routledge 2002/2007) which despite being originally aimed at the academic market, between them have sold over 250,000 copies and been translated into 20 different languages. He also published an “anti-history” of great philosophers, Philosophical Tales (2008) for Blackwell.
His most recent projects include the UK edition of Philosophy for Dummies (Wiley June 2010); Mind Games: 31 days to rediscover your Brain (Blackwell, July 2010) and The Doomsday Machine
The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World’s Most Dangerous Fuel
(co-authored with Andrew McKillop). A book on Thought Experiments was well-reviewed despite being entitled (confusingly perhaps!) Wittgenstein’s Beetle, (2004) and other more academic books include a mini book on Adam Smith; and a reference guide to philosophy and ethics for Hodder Academic.
Martin now writes full-time, but in the past has taught philosophy and social science at a number of universities in the UK and Australia, and was involved in a research project at Leeds University under George MacDonald Ross exploring ways to shift philosophy teaching away from the the mere study of philosophical facts and toward a view of philosophy as an activity.
A respected environmentalist, he wrote an influential series of articles in the Times Higher (London) about the politics of the climate change debate. He has written discussion papers on environmental concerns for the European Parliament and been invited by the Chinese government to discuss ecological rights and indigenous communities.
He is also the editor of THE PHILOSOPHER, a journal founded in 1923, which counts some of the best known names in Twentieth Century philosophy amongst its contributors. His editorial strategy is to allow as wide a range of ideas as possible a forum in the Journal, and this often prints papers by non-specialists with unusual and original ideas. He is currently based in Normandy, France, but travels often to the US and UK.OpEdNews Member for 2 day(s)
5. Guillaume Wack’s reassurances on the French nuclear situation are revealed again in the New York Times in an article, “Safety Fears Raised at French Reactor” (July 26, 2010)¬† available atclick here
6. Eisaku Sato, former governor of Fukushima provinces words were widely reported at the time, see for example, the article ‘Regulators Ignored Warning Signs at Fukushima By Evann Gastaldo,, Mar 22, 2011 available at¬†click here