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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Replays Chernobyl




The nuclear accident at the Tokaimura uranium-processing plant in Japan last week has surprising parallels with other nuclear accidents, notably with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Granted, Chernobyl's scale and impact dwarf that of Tokaimura and involved a huge power-generating reactor, not one for fuel manufacture. Yet in site practices, in the safety and operating records of their nuclear facilities and, above all, in the arrogant mind-set of engineers and officials, the roots of these accidents - and the nuclear industries of the former Soviet Union and Japan generally - have much in common.


First, both countries share a long history of unquestioned faith in and a growing reliance on atomic energy. The Japanese commitment to nuclear power dates to the 1950s and was based on the absence of fossil fuel and hydroelectric resources.


Fifty-one reactors now crowd Japan's small landmass, generating one-third of its electrical energy. In 15 years, that capacity could approach one-half. The decision to build dozens of reactors in the Soviet Union dates to the same era and was connected to declining coal reserves and the desire to earn hard currency from oil exports, and not because of domestic needs.


To avoid high electricity transmission costs, the Soviets built more than 40 reactors near major cities. The result was a lethal combination of steel, concrete and radioactive fuel too close for safety. In the cases of Tokaimura in Japan and Chernobyl, these sites were within 110 kilometers of Tokyo and Kiev, respectively, and millions of people. To this day, Japanese nuclear specialists, like their counterparts in the Soviet establishment, insist that their facilities are safe and that accidents are always the result of worker error. When accidents occur, they claim that workers were exposed to minimal levels. Yet Chernobyl and Tokaimura reveal that officials are poorly equipped to handle even minor accidents and cannot evacuate workers or their families quickly.


Fifty thousand Chernobyl residents and 30,000 Tokaimura residents paid the immediate consequences. How many will pay over the long term? The attitude of nuclear specialists and policy-makers to public worries is also similar. They discount nuclear fears, blindly asserting the infallibility of their facilities, and they force the construction of dozens of massive reactors on unwitting citizens.


Even after repeated accidents that involved the loss of life, they insist that nuclear power is the key to future economic prosperity. Neither government has any idea of the cost or path for decommissioning reactors safely. Nor, as in other countries, do they know what to do with growing thousands of tons and millions of gallons of low-and high-level radioactive waste.


Accidents and cost overruns have plagued all nuclear industries. Leaks of radioactive cooling water and shoddy workmanship were widely known at Chernobyl long before the explosion. At other Soviet stations, men were boiled alive, irradiated and burned in a constant series of accidents in the years leading up to Chernobyl. The Tokaimura plant has been the site of previous devastating accidents too. Two years ago, two fires and an explosion shook the plant, exposing 37 workers to radiation. Months later, officials admitted that 2,000 steel barrels had been leaking low-level radioactive waste for years. Other accidents have been covered up.


In symbolic ways too, the backgrounds to these accidents resemble each other. Tokaimura symbolizes Japan's attempt to secure energy independence based on a closed fuel cycle. The plant produces enriched uranium and fabricates fuel rods. It also extracts plutonium from spent fuel rods for use in so-called breeder reactors. Breeders are cooled by liquid sodium, which at the major Japanese facility Monju has leaked, leading to fires, explosions and injuries.


These failures did not dampen engineers' enthusiasm for other applications, such as nuclear ships and portable reactors, fusion and extensive agricultural, medical and industrial uses, spreading isotopes far and wide.


This atomic symbolism differs starkly from those most prominent in Japanese and Ukrainian minds: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl. Serious accidents will occur with greater frequency as the nuclear facilities age.


Until solutions to radioactive waste and decommissioning are found, until reactors can be designed that are truly safe and until reactors are built far from population centers, expansion of the nuclear enterprise must cease. Tokaimura and Chernobyl symbolize not cheap electricity but a technology of still-unknown risk.


Paul Josephson teaches the history of science and technology at Wellesley College. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.