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    A chemical, a chemical reaction

    Here we go again. It’s been a few years since our last Keystone Kops-ish nuclear power screw-up, so I guess we’re about due for one. At least this time, the problem has been discovered before anything went kablooie:

    A former employee of a supplier of concrete-grade gravel to be used in turbines in Reactor 4 of Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station has made an internal report to the Nuclear Power Safety and Security Commission of METI (the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry), saying that he falsified reactivity test results on alkaline aggregate used to guarantee quality control in the gravel. The commission has begun investigations.

    Okay, I can read that, but I admit that I only took a year of high school chemistry and don’t know what it really means. But you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that “falsified test results” + “guarantee quality control” = uh-oh. The nuclear power industry in Japan is notorious for lax enforcement of safety standards and endless cover-ups. Five years ago, two employees at the Tokaimura uranium processing facility were in a rush and dumped too much enriched uranium solution into a tank, setting off an uncontrolled fission reaction. (As a coworker said to me the day of the accident, you couldn’t trust such jackasses to make Lipton onion soup.) Several hundred people were variously evacuated or imprisoned at home or school. It took hours to locate an appropriate counter to measure how much radiation had escaped. All told, several hundred thousand people may have been endangered to different degrees.

    But the whole thing was played down. My favorite part came several days later when–I’ll never forget this as long as I live–one of the sub-minister types from MITI (it was still the Ministry of International Trade and Industry then) was packed off to Tokaimura to sample the local produce, stagily smacking his lips over how fresh and succulent the melon was. The implication was that, since he didn’t begin glowing immediately, no one had anything to worry about.

    Mind you, this had been the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. That doesn’t mean it was at the same level as Chernobyl, of course; it wasn’t nearly. But it wasn’t as if two janitors had accidentally mixed ammonia with Clorox in a bucket, either. No one really knows how extensive the safety and accountability problems are in the nuclear industry here. Happily, while Japan has more accidents than most other countries that use nuclear power, they’re still pretty few and far between. One can only hope that controls are firmed up sufficiently before something big-time disastrous happens. It’d be unwise to bank on it, though.

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