It’s a shame. But the only time nuclear energy ever hits the headlines is when there is bad news to report. Well, they say good news is no news and I guess (at times) I can be just as guilty as other members of the media when it comes to selective reporting on the nuclear sector. Yet we have to admit that as an industry, it does itself no favours and is often guilty of its own share of selective reporting.
Once again, enter Japan. It was only three years ago that the accident at the Tokaimura reprocessing facility hit the news. This time Tepco has been found guilty of falsifying safety records at three of its nuclear plants.
Last month, METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) announced that it had found evidence of falsified records of cracks at Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture and the No. 1 and No. 2 Fukushima nuclear plants in Fukushima Prefecture. It was revealed that METI was anonymously contacted two years ago by an independent inspector hired by Tepco who had filed a report showing cracks in the reactor shroud, which company personnel had failed to report.
As the plot unfolds, it seems that over 100 nuclear division employees may have complied with the cover-ups. Consequently, Tepco’s chairman, president, executive vice president and two of its advisers and top executives announced their resignation.
While nuclear plants have the highest safety standards, if something does go wrong the potential repercussions are unthinkable. And with Tepco knowing that the eyes of the country are on its nuclear industry, one has to ask what could possibly make the company take any chances in the operation of its nuclear plant?
According to the Kyodo News, the company’s top priority was maintaining power supply. In the US and Europe cracks in nuclear shrouds are often mended or left alone if the damage is not considered dangerous. In Japan they would have to be replaced. While the problems were apparently not serious enough to affect safety, making repairs would have meant taking the plants offline, thus affecting service and expenditure. The cost of taking a 1000 MW nuclear plant offline can cost in the region of 100 million yen ($800 000) per day.
Tepco was obviously taking a ‘calculated risk’ by not reporting the faults and is now paying the price. Not only has it lost its top management but it has also had to restart operations at some of its thermal power plant. It is estimated to cost 60-100 million yen per day to replace one nuclear plant with a thermal plant. Now Tepco will have to pay an estimated 30 billion yen in additional costs as a result of its failure to properly report problems. In the end it turned out to be mismanagement of the highest order.
And speaking of mismanagement, now enter British Energy. Although of a different nature to Tepco, mismanagement has been the main accusation facing the troubled UK generator. Last month, the company was heading for administration after it announced it was in financial difficulty. This forced the government to grant an emergency £410 million loan facility to keep it afloat. This was followed by a further £240 million grant about 10 days after the first grant. Some blame the woes of British Energy on wholesale power prices, others blame the government for poor management of the UK nuclear programme and misleading the public on costs before placing it into the private sector. There are others who say the lack of urgency on policy surrounding nuclear is to blame. Certainly policies are needed to address: reprocessing or storage of waste which inflates the cost of generation; and the imposition of what is thought to be an unfair carbon tax on nuclear generation.
Indeed it seems the words policy and nuclear always stir up controversy – at all levels. At the international level Iran’s plans to add 6000 MW of nuclear capacity over the next 20 years is now a bone of contention – at least for the US. It expressed concern that the planned 1000 MW reactor in Bushehr will help advance Iran’s weapons programme.
According to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in which Iran played a part in drafting for the Middle East, all the nations under the NPT have the right to use nuclear energy and nuclear technology for civil purposes. Mr Gholamreza Aqazadeh, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization asked the question: why are some signatory states, despite their international commitment, prevented from acquiring nuclear technology while others are not?
Sir, I have no answer; except to say that it is all part of the industry you are in – one which is too often clouded by double standards, secrecy and selective reporting.