Today's date:
Summer 2011

The Japanese Nuclear Industry: A Regrettable Exception

Dominique Louis is CEO of Assystem and a leading French expert on nuclear energy.

Paris—Due to its dramatic nature as well as to the worldwide media attention it has generated, the nuclear accident of Fukushima Daiichi has become a catastrophe that, in the minds of many, overshadows one of the most destructive tsunamis of recent centuries. It has shamed an entire industry and has pushed some countries into urgently adopting moratoria and others into demanding the outright dismantling of the entire world nuclear industry.

This is a strange paradox indeed. At the time when the Deepwater Horizon oil platform plunged into the Gulf of Mexico, the safety practices of BP and its subcontractors were blamed, yet not the oil industry in its entirety. The catastrophe of Fukushima Daiichi is not representative of the world nuclear industry, nor can it be reproduced elsewhere.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident is the manifestation of a natural “black swan” phenomenon, a very serious tsunami and some inexcusable human errors, which, in turn, are the result of the specific Japanese context: too many operators, which are organized in cartels; a tradition of secrecy, which has led to under-reporting of the number of previous incidents; a culture of seeking the cheapest solutions and an outdated control agency. Thus, the Japanese civilian nuclear program cannot be compared to the most advanced nuclear programs, such as those in France or the United States.

Instead of leading to a blame of the nuclear industry as a whole, this catastrophe should result in questioning the practices of the Japanese operators, and specifically of TEPCO, as well as in seeking better worldwide practices.

The tsunami certainly stunned all around by its dimensions. Yet, it was not entirely unpredictable. The very potential of such a risk should have led designers and operators of the power plant to build a higher breakwater. This shows that the “systemic” component of the danger was not correctly assessed by the Japanese designers, in spite of the fact that the agency responsible for its safety, NISA, had warned of this danger on multiple occasions during the past few years.

This agency had never been given the means to play its part to the fullest. Created in 2001, NISA is part of the Japanese Ministry of Energy, Trade and Industry (METI). Its independence is limited and it does not have appropriate means to function properly. The American example has shown that a strong and independent nuclear regulatory agency is indispensable. The strengthening of the powers of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 in the US has led to a significant reduction in the incidence rate of major accidents, from 2.4 per year in 1985 to only 0.2 annually in 2007.

Another typical aspect of the situation in Japan is the number of operators. In France, all 58 nuclear reactors operate under the sole authority of the EDF (Électricité de France) and are subject to identical safety procedures. Any incident in one reactor triggers a safety check in all others of the same type. In Japan, a total of 54 reactors are run by not less than 11 operators, each of them with its own safety procedures. Coordination between operators is either nonexistent or very weak at best, and certainly not up to the challenge. In the US, the creation of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) after the Three Mile Island accident has made it possible to increase the availability rate of American nuclear power plants by 15 percent in 30 years. Moreover, one can seriously doubt the strength of the funding, the governance and the lasting quality of Japanese nuclear operators. TEPCO shares have lost more than 75 percent of their value since the catastrophe.

The lack of attention paid to the combustion cycle, hence the crucial reprocessing phase, is another problem in the Japanese nuclear industry. The used combustion rods were stored in the pools of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, waiting for a decision to be made on their final destination. In building its reprocessing plant in La Hague, France has taken care of the combustion cycle in its entirety.

These structural difficulties are reflected in the availability of the totality of Japanese nuclear power plants. Japan has steadily dropped to a rate of less than 60 percent of its production potential in 2009, compared with availability in excess of 75 percent in France and of 80 percent in the US and Germany.

Japanese operators have a different perception of potential dangers. TEPCO had already been severely penalized in the past. In 2003, NISA had closed down TEPCO’s 17 reactors after it came to light that inspection reports had been falsified. As recently as 2007, the seven reactors of the Kashiwazaki plant, which is also operated by TEPCO, were stopped due to an earthquake that exceeded the building hypotheses of this plant. Only the two most modern reactors of this plant were subsequently allowed to reopen.

Rather than seeking assistance from all possible sources, such as the Japanese government, the US military and foreign operators, who would have been able to help correct the situation at the time of the catastrophe, TEPCO preferred delaying the call for foreign assistance, apparently in the futile hope of reopening the plant. It would be reasonable to think that this behavior has led to the worsening of the catastrophe.

For all these reasons it is wrong to declare that, as a consequence of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, the only solution is the abandonment of nuclear power altogether. Instead of questioning the nuclear industry in its entirety, we should draw the principal lessons from this catastrophe. What are these?

The nuclear industry should never be allowed to compromise on the two essential elements of operational safety and security. This should be guaranteed by a very powerful nuclear safety authority, in accordance with the French and American models, as well as by a limited number of perennial and transparent operators.

Furthermore, the best possible risk assessment, especially of the systemic component of dangers, should be based on engineering considerations. Such a strategy would also take advantage of the very best experts. France, for example, possesses elite personnel, who have made possible the training of the very best specialists of the world in all relevant fields of the nuclear industry, including design, engineering and operation of the plants, as well as the management of the combustion cycle.

With respect to Europe, the energy mix can certainly stand some degree of rebalancing, especially toward the increased use of natural gas and renewable energy sources, in order to better take into account the objectives of the European Union on supply security, cost competitiveness and its contribution to the fight against global warming. Lastly, substantial progress can be made in reducing the energy demand in Europe in order to reduce energy consumption. Measures should include better insulation of buildings, which account for 40 percent of energy consumption in France. This goal should be pursued everywhere in Europe, as it has been in the “Grenelle for Environment,” just as the technological advances around the smart grid should be fully utilized.

Nuclear energy remains an exceptional energy source, and it must be treated as such. It can be one of the most vital clean energies of tomorrow.