“I Want You to Know What a Nuclear Power Plant Is”
[We are very grateful to Yasuo Akai for contributing this translation! Thanks, Yasuo!! Also, thanks to Jayda Fogel for assisting Yasuo!]
By Norio Hirai
I’m not an anti-nuclear power plant activist.
I have worked in the nuclear power plants for twenty years. There have been various debates over them. Some are for these places, others against them. Some say that they are safe; others declare that they are dangerous. I shall tell you what a nuclear power plant actually is, which few people really know. After finishing this, you will understand that every day the nuclear power plants are poisoning people, as well as causing discrimination and injustice—contrary to what you may have been told so far.
I am going to tell you many stories that you may never have heard. Please read all of this, and then consider what should be done. While there are many people capable of explaining how the plants are designed, I am the only one who can explain how they are actually built. You can never know the reality of nuclear power plants without first understanding the actual construction sites.
I am an engineer specializing in building the pipelines for large chemical plants. In my late twenties Japan started building nuclear power plants and I was recruited onto the sites. …. I worked for a long time as a manager, and so I know almost everything about what is going on there. [….]
Close it, and keep an eye on it.
Why is it so impossible to decommission and dismantle a nuclear power plant? Well, water and steam circulate in an operating reactor. However once the reactor ceases to operate, the water will soon rust it out, causing it to leak radioactive material. Once a reactor is put into operation, radioactive materials contaminate it. It can neither be dismantled, nor simply be left inactive.
Developed countries have already closed many of their reactors. They are closed, and not yet scrapped. Closure means that those reactors are no longer generating electricity, and that the fuel is taken out. But there are still many things left to do.
A closed reactor, which is contaminated with radioactive materials, has to keep moving and circulating water, like it did when it generated electricity. Water pressure erodes the pipes and breaks some parts; it must be regularly checked over, or it will leak radioactive material. It has to keep being watched and maintained, just like when it was in operation, and until radioactive material will disappear.
There are 51 reactors in operation and 3 under construction in Japan. Some of them are too dangerous to be operated any longer. Additionally, universities and some companies have their own research reactors. At this moment, there are a total of 76 reactors, ranging from small 100 kilowatts reactors, to huge 135 million kilowatts facilities.
Whether the electric power companies are willing to take care of closed reactors, no longer productive or profitable, is questionable. But those companies are still planning to build more plants and reactors. Their plans include building a No. 5 reactor at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, located in an area where a huge earthquake is predicted, and feared to occur. Fukushima Prefecture will get more reactors in exchange of a football stadium. They are trying to build more new plants: the Makimachi Plant in Niigata Prefecture, the Ashihama in Mie Prefecture, the Kaminoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Suzu in Ishikawa Prefecture, the Oma and the Higashidori in Aomori Prefecture, and so on. Japan aims to have 70 or 80 reactors by 2010. No offence, but Japan is insane.
In the future, we will face the serious problem of having to close those reactors. Sooner or later, those closed nuclear plants will take over everywhere across Japan. It is quite chilling.
What to do with the spent fuel?
Every day, those reactors in operation inevitably produce spent fuel. It is called low level radioactive waste, but if you stand by some of the containers filled with this waste for 5 hours, you will be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. The nuclear power plants across Japan have so far produced more than 800 thousand containers filled with this radioactive waste.
Until 1969, radioactive waste was first contained in containers, and then thrown into home waters, it was normal at that time. Around that time I was working at the Tokai Nuclear Power Plant in Ibaraki Prefecture; tracks carrying contained waste left from there for the sea, and then boats carried them to be dumped offshore of Chiba Prefecture.
It was then, that I started thinking that there might be something wrong with the nuclear power plant. These containers will decompose within a year in water, and then what happens to the waste? Are the fish safe?
At this time, the waste from the nuclear power plants is collected in Rokkasho Village, in the Aomori Prefecture. The plan is that the 300 million containers filled with waste will be managed for 300 years. I am not sure whether the containers will be intact, or whether the company that takes care of the waste will still exist, 300 years from now.
We also have high level radioactive waste. This is what is left after plutonium has been extracted from spent fuel, which companies in Britain and France then reprocess. In 1995, 28 containers filled with high level radioactive waste returned from France to Japan. Melted high level waste and glass were mixed together and poured into steel containers. It is said that if you stand next to this container for 2 minutes, you will die. The plan is to keep cooling those containers down for 30 or 50 years somewhere in Rokkasho Village, and then to bury them somewhere deeper underground. Yet the location for burial has not been decided. Similar plans exist in other countries, but none of them has actually disposed of high level waste. Every country is in trouble.
Finally, we have those reactors themselves. The government says simply that closed reactors will be concealed for 5 or 10 years, before being broken down to debris and enclosed into containers to be buried under their own sites. However, one reactor produce tens of thousands of tons of waste contaminated with radioactive material. Even now we are in trouble because of our ordinary garbage. How can we deal with all this radioactive waste, which is likely to take over all of Japan? We must do something, but first we must stop the nuclear power plants as soon as possible.
You cannot simply scrap them.
In 1966, Japan imported a 160 thousand kilowatts commercial nuclear reactor from Britain, and so the first reactor became operational in Tokai Village. Since then Japan has imported reactors from America, and then started building them on its own. Now 51 reactors, including a huge 135 million kilowatts reactor, are in operation on such a small land.
Despite not knowing how to scrap them or what to do with spent fuel, Japan started operation anyway. These reactors would inevitably become unusable because of their continued exposure to huge amounts of radiation, regardless of having been built of thick iron. At first it was said that the life of a reactor was 10 years, and planned to decommission and dismantle them accordingly. But in 1981, we learned that it was impossible to decommission and dismantle the 10-year-old No. 1 reactor of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant run by TEPCO as planned. This became a contentious topic debated by the National Diet of Japan. The lawmakers questioned whether the reactor could withstand the nuclear reaction.
At that time, I joined into the discussions everyday about how to decommission and dismantle the reactor. We found that it would cost more to decommission and dismantle it than to construct. In addition we found that decommissioning and dismantling the higher toxic reactor would entail exposing the workers to high doses of radiation. There was nothing we could do, workers could be in the reactor for only 10 seconds or so, according to guidelines.
It is humans, not theory, who do things that expose them to high doses of radiation. We can do nothing until the radioactive material is reduced to zero. We cannot decommission and dismantle the reactors as long as they are toxic. Some say that robots could do these things, but though it has been researched, so far robots are not useful because radioactive material breaks them down.
We apparently abandoned the plan to dismantle Fukushima Plant’s reactor, and the American manufacturer who had sold us the reactor sent their workers to improve it. Those workers from America were exposed to incredibly high doses of radiation such as Japanese guidelines do not allow Japanese workers. This reactor is still in operation.
There are 11 reactors whose lives were said to be 10 years once they had become operational, which have instead been working for nearly 30 years. I am really worried about those tired reactors.
And while we’re at it, here’s a really helpful insight from Jerry Mander on the non-neutrality of technology……..
(via Jade Cricket’s blog: http://jadecricket.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/technology-is-not-neutral-jerry-mander/)
The following, from Jerry Mander’s book In The Abscence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of Indian Nations:
No notion more completely confirms our technological somnambulism than the idea that technology contains no inherent political bias. From the political Right and Left, from the corporate world and the world of community activism, one hears the same homily: “The problem is not with technology itself, but how we use it and who controls it.” This idea would be merely preposterous if it were not so widely accepted, and so dangerous. In believing this, however, we allow technology to develop without analyzing its actual bias. And then we are surprised when certain technologies turn out to be useful or beneficial only for certain segments of society.
A prime example is nuclear energy, which cannot possibly move society in a democratic direction, but will move society in an autocratic direction. Because it is so expensive and so dangerous, nuclear energy must be under the direct control of centralized financial, governmental, and military institutions. A nuclear power plant is not something that a few neighbors can get together and build. Community control is anathema. Even control by city or state governments is proving impossible, as is now obvious to those locales attempting to block the movement and disposal of radioactive wastes within their borders.
The existence of nuclear energy, and nuclear weaponry, in turn requires the existence of what Ralph Nader has called a new “priesthood” — a technical and military elite capable of guarding nuclear waste products for approximate the 250,000 years they remain dangerous. So if some future society, tiring of the present path, should determine to move away from a centralized technological society and toward, say, an agrarian society, it would be impossible. The technical elite would need to remain, if only to deal with the various wastes left behind. So it is fair to say that nuclear technological inherently steers society toward greater political and financial centralization, and greater militarization (36-37).