plutonium probe latest flap for Japan's beleaguered nuclear power industry
Associated Press, Tokyo, January 28, 2003
By Kenji Hall
Japanese officials acknowledged Tuesday that it
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The court cited a bungled cover-up of the accident,
which included falsified reports and concealed video footage, in its
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
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."