January 2003

Missing plutonium probe latest flap for Japan's beleaguered nuclear power industry

Associated Press, Tokyo, January 28, 2003
By Kenji Hall

[Posted 28/01/2003]

Japanese officials acknowledged Tuesday that it took a 15-year investigation to account for a more than 200-kilogram (440- pound) shortfall in plutonium at a major nuclear power facility, further damaging the industry's already wobbly safety record.

Tokyo began investigating a fuel-reprocessing plant in Tokai, central Japan, after the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency pointed out in 1987 that the plant's records showed less plutonium than it was supposed to have.

A report wrapping up the investigation - submitted Tuesday to a government nuclear safety commission - found the nuclear material had either been safely disposed of or never existed to begin with, said Education and Science Ministry spokesman Keiji Tsukamoto.

Investigators ruled out the possibility that any plutonium had been taken from the facility or that any radiation had leaked outside the plant, which has produced a total of 6,890 kilograms (15,190 pounds) of plutonium since it began operating in 1977, Tsukamoto said.

"We never thought the plutonium had been stolen," another ministry spokesman, Masanori Nagai, said.

Instead, officials believe much of the plutonium was never produced.

Flawed plutonium output projections at Tokai forecast the facility would produce about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) more than it was actually capable of. Tsukamoto said another 94 kilograms (207 pounds) of plutonium had leaked into waste water that was contained at the plant, and 29 kilograms (64 pounds) was damaged in storage and rendered unusable.

The IAEA on Tuesday backed Tokyo in saying it believed no plutonium was removed from the plant.

"The agency remains confident in its conclusion that no nuclear material has been diverted from the facility," IAEA Director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement.

The IAEA began inspecting the facility in 1977. In November, it conducted a review of data from the past 25 years, the agency said.

While clearing up the case of the missing plutonium, the news of calculation errors and the time it took to find them underscored public concerns about safety from an industry already awash in reports of negligence and cover-ups.

"The Tokai plant is just a small, experimental fuel reprocessing plant. If that much plutonium went unaccounted for at Tokai, how does the government expect to deal with a larger, commercial- sized plant now being built?" asked Kazue Suzuki, an activist at Greenpeace Japan.

Resource-poor Japan relies on nuclear power for over a third of its electricity. Current plans call for as many as 10 new plants to boost nuclear-generated power to 42 percent of total output by 2011.

But the Japanese public has become increasingly wary of nuclear power since a 1999 radiation leak at a fuel-reprocessing plant - also in Tokai - killed two workers.

That leak, the worst-ever nuclear accident in Japan, forced 161 people to evacuate their homes, and another 310,000 to stay indoors for 18 hours as a precaution. In all, 439 people were exposed to radiation.

Safety fears have been worsened by allegations last year that the nation's largest utility, Tokyo Electric Power Co., did not fully disclose data about structural problems at some of its nuclear reactors.

In a serious blow to the industry, a Japanese high court on Monday ruled in favor of residents seeking the permanent closure of a controversial fast-breeder reactor that has been closed since a 1995 accident.

The court cited a bungled cover-up of the accident, which included falsified reports and concealed video footage, in its decision.

The experimental reactor, which uses plutonium fuel instead of uranium and produces more plutonium that can be reused as fuel, had been the centerpiece of Japan's ambitions to expand its nuclear facilities.

Officials indicated they would appeal the ruling.

Japan's national Mainichi newspaper predicted the ruling would have far-reaching repercussions for the industry.

"The government may be faced with re-inspecting and revamping its (nuclear) standards and practices," it said in an editorial Tuesday. "There are concerns that energy companies are hiding their problems."

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