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Top>Opinion>On the TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Accident


Masataka Baba

Masataka Baba [Profile]

On the TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Accident

Masataka Baba
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Technography

Difficulties with Meltdowns and Convergence

It has been over two months since the accident at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Nuclear Power Plant No. 1 in Fukushima, but the situation has become worse instead of heading towards convergence. TEPCO has announced the possibility of nuclear meltdowns from machines 1 to 3, which is the worst possible situation that can occur. The uranium dioxide fuel has formed pellets and sealed in the zircaloy cladding tubes. A meltdown having occurred means that the zircaloy cladding tubes have melted along with the nuclear fuel. The melting point of uranium dioxide being 2,800℃ and the melting point of zircaloy being 1,700℃ and above indicates that the molten materials have reached temperatures of well over 1,500℃, which is the melting point of steel. The fission products emit radiation while continuing to emit decay heat, so the molten materials of the nuclear fuel that have gathered at the bottom of the pressure vessels will melt the sixteen centimeter-thick steel pressure vessels and fall down into the containment vessels unless they are cooled down. It could then burn right through the containment vessels, melt the concrete layers that cover the containment vessels, and keep running further and further down. This is the China Syndrome that was pointed out during the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant accident. Although there was a fuel meltdown during the TMI accident, catastrophic results could be diverted because the cooling and feedwater system was still functioning. Furthermore, the TMI and Chernobyl disasters were caused by one nuclear reactor each. Meltdowns in machines 1 to 3 in Fukushima occurred and radiation is being diffused because there may be a crack in the spent nuclear fuel pool of machine 4. In other words, all four nuclear reactors must be brought to convergence, and that is what makes the situation in Fukushima a difficult one. A failure at just one reactor can lead to catastrophic results and we can only pray that there will not be any trouble such as a major aftershock or an unforeseen explosion before the convergence.

Not Adept with Large Systems

One wonders if bodies such as the government and TEPCO have responded appropriately to this accident. Clarifying this will be a major issue for the future, but the crisis management capacities of the government are already being severely criticized for the questionable ways in which it dealt with this crisis, including that the radiation diffusion data by SPEEDI was withheld, the permissible amounts of radiation were raised, and measures were not taken sooner due to the delayed verifying of the meltdowns. It was also absolutely astonishing to see how irresponsible TEPCO was when it was reported in the Mainichi Shimbun on March 18th that they had told the prime minister's office that they planned on evacuating their employees from the scene of the disaster area after the accident.

One thing that is becoming evident through the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident is that Japan may not be adept at controlling large systems. Not fully understanding something that one is not adept at is actually a dangerous condition that can bring about catastrophic events. A subject that comes to mind when regarding large systems is the issue of logistics during the Pacific War. It is the matter of shipping resources such as food supplies, weapons, and ammunition, and fuel, and transporting armed personnel. It is said that logistics is what determines who the winner will be in modern warfare, and Japan's logistics were executed too poorly to cover the vast battle lines, as evidenced by the fact that many of the deaths of Japan's armed personnel resulted from starvation and illness. Armed personnel were transported by vessels without escorts such as destroyers and were attacked by American submarines at the beginning of the war. Military technology in the various fields was superb. Japan's fighting power in the skies was overwhelmingly superior in the early stages of the war because of the high turning performance of the Zero fighters and highly-trained pilots that the U.S. military sent notice to avoid one-on-one dog fights with Zero fighters. Churchill mentioned in his memoirs that the Japanese sword and the Zero fighter showed that Japan was a force to be reckoned with. Although we had advanced technology in such a small region, we disregarded or were incompetent in the large system of logistics. It can be said that expanding battle lines and leading the country to ruins is akin to constructing nuclear power plants all over this small nation with its many earthquakes while maintaining the pretext of absolute safety, in terms of irresponsibility.

Appropriate Technology

Calls for technology such as appropriate technology and alternative technology were being made until 1990 in response to the risks, worry over military use, and inhumane working environments associated with large science and technology (large systems) such as nuclear power, space exploration, and marine exploration. Appropriate technology is basically small-scale technology that is befitting to a country and refers to the best form of sustainable technology for society, culture, and the environment. Alternative technology advocates the promotion of safe technology that is friendly to the environment in response to large and heavy technology that leads to problems such as environmental pollution and major accidents.

Such assertions eventually died out for a number of reasons, the greatest of which was Japan's worldwide success through the utilization of microelectronic technology as of the 1980's. Innovations developed with small technology, and a successful departure from large and heavy technology could be made. Small technology took over large science and technology and a paradigm shift occurred in technological history, but the dangerous large science and technology that could be uncontrollable if there was to be an accident still remained.

What is Ideal for Japan?

Japan's technological tradition shows clearly that the Japanese people have unleashed their talents to apply their exquisite and keen senses to build relatively small products. The pursuit of large systems going against this tradition of expertise is dangerous and could quite possibly result in painful mistakes. The inclination of the Japanese people to join the ranks of the Western nations has been deep-rooted since the Meiji era, but it is about time we put a stop to this. It is as if we are sending athletes to compete in all sports in the Olympics and saying that it is a good thing to do one's best, which is foolish. A competitive society where value is placed on production that is larger, faster, higher, and greater in volume is not a sustainable one. Is doing what you are best at and coexisting with others while accepting what their realms of expertise are not the ideal way of living? Perhaps we should see the nuclear power plant accident as a sign that we must turn towards an ideal way of living through a larger viewpoint as well as pursuing more befitting forms of technology to sustain such a way of living.

Masataka Baba
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Technography
Born in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1944. Graduated from the School of Engineering, Yokohama National University in 1968.
Completed the Master's Course at the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1971.
Completed the Doctoral Course without dissertation at the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1974.
Appointed to current post in 1981 after serving as Assistant Professor and Associate Professor on the Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University.
Specializes in technological history and technological studies. Is recently examining the advanced technological skills of Japan in line with specific traditional techniques in order to find exactly where Japan excels while searching for commonalities between traditional and modern techniques.
Primary works include Technological History Overview [Gijutsu Shi Gairon] (Ashi-Shobo), Technography Overview [Kagaku Gijutsu Shi Gairon] (Kenpakusha), 'Skill and Intuition', Culture and Technology in Modern Japan (I.B. Tau ris), Characteristics of Technological Developments in Japan [Nippon No Gijutsu Kaihatsu No Tokusei] (The Institute of Business Research, Chuo University Institutional Research).