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Japan risks nuclear disaster for consumer convenience

The crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant must prompt the Japanese to ask themselves whether their appetite for convenience is worth the catastrophic risks of relying on nuclear power stations situated on seismic fault lines.

By Hiroaki Koide / May 17, 2011


I have been warning about the possibility of catastrophic nuclear power accidents for the past 40 years. That the very nightmare I always predicted has come true makes it no less alarming to watch the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster unfold.

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Nuclear power plants are machines; machines can fail at times. Nuclear power plants are constructed and operated by people; people are not infallible — mistakes may be made. Beyond that, natural disasters are beyond our control. No matter how much we try to prevent accidents from happening, we must still be prepared for when they do occur. The essential risk of nuclear energy is that it involves imperfect machines controlling an enormous amount of naturally dangerous substances. In the event of a worst-case accident, catastrophic damage is unavoidable. Any assurances that nuclear power is “absolutely” safe are propaganda.

Worst-case scenario

I cannot predict how the present situation will turn out. In my worst-case scenario, the cooling of the reactors will fail, causing the reactor core to collapse — the so-called meltdown. And if there is water remaining at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel containing the reactor cores, a steam blast explosion can occur. If that happens, the primary containment shell covering the reactor pressure vessels — the final radioactivity-confining barrier — can be damaged. Then a great quantity of radioactivity will be released into the environment. The workers at the Fukushima Power Station are currently fighting hard to prevent such a scenario. I hope their struggle will be successful.

IN PICTURES: Japan's nuclear crisis

Most of the world’s nuclear power plants have been built away from seismic faults. There are a hundred nuclear power stations in the U.S. constructed on the East Coast where earthquakes do not strike. There are a hundred and fifty nuclear power plants in Europe, where the crust is stable and there is no fear of earthquakes. However, in Japan, the most seismically active country in the world, there are 54 operating nuclear plants.

There is a very large possibility of the next disastrous accident occurring at the five nuclear reactors at Hamaoka, Shizuoka prefecture, where there is a very high and imminent probability of a major earthquake along the Tokai Fault. We now know that land on which the Hamaoka plant is built is unstable and will magnify any damage caused by the earthquake.

Foolish choices

Are we just going to wait until another disaster strikes at Hamaoka? The Fukushima episode must prompt Japanese to ask themselves whether their appetite for convenience is worth making such foolish choices.

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Many Japanese believe that we will not be able to lead comfortable lives without nuclear energy. But there are alternatives. Nuclear energy at present only produces 18 percent of overall electricity capacity. To generate this share of electricity now being produced by nuclear plants would require only 20 percent of the production capacity of Japan’s extant thermal power plants, which are only operating at 50 percent capacity.


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