Editorial: Explosion at experiment facility “Unforeseen” again?

Once again we’ve heard the word “unforeseen.” Many people must be fed up by now.

This time the word was used in conjunction with an accident at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, a facility of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). Thirty researchers and others were exposed to radiation, and radioactive materials leaked.

The accident took place not long after it was discovered that the JAEA had failed to inspect many critical pieces of equipment at Monju, its prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. The president was forced to resign to accept responsibility for this.

Although J-PARC is a basic research facility with little direct connection to nuclear power, how do they regard the lessons of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant? As an organization, the facility has far too little sense of the dangers involved in their work.

The JAEA is an independent administrative entity under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It was created eight years ago through a merger of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute as the core agency for research and technological development related to atomic energy.

The experiment facility continues to play a part in Japan’s nuclear energy policy. Control of radioactive materials should be very tight.

So why did the exposure to radiation and the leak occur? The accelerator uses a proton beam to determine the nature of particular atomic nuclei and elementary particles, but apparently a beam of higher intensity than planned was used as the result of a malfunction.

The agency said they had not considered the possibility that an accident might occur, but clearly they lacked adequate awareness of the hazards.

What concerns us first of all is the structural problem with the experiment facility, which was not designed to prevent leaks. There are no filters to remove radioactive materials from the air, so if radioactive materials are released inside the facility they go directly outside.

Naturally, the safety of the experiment facility itself will be called into question. And unlike nuclear power plants, experiment facilities are not obligated to take measures to prevent leaks of radioactive materials. The agency must immediately inspect for other risks and review the design of atomic energy research facilities and the regulations pertaining to them.

What is even more puzzling is how easily the radioactive materials escaped to the outside.

Another problem is that, although an alarm went off letting workers know that something was wrong, they merely reset the safety device and went on with the experiment. An exhaust fan was also unthinkingly turned on after the radiation level inside the building had climbed. This is also beyond our comprehension.

Needless to say, it is a cardinal rule of atomic energy facilities that radioactive materials must not be allowed to leak. The JAEA will certainly be accused of a complete lack of awareness of the need to observe this precaution.

But what dealt a critical blow to the agency’s credibility was the delay in disclosing information. The JAEA did not file a report with the Nuclear Regulation Authority until more than 36 hours after the accident. The agency claims this was because they underestimated the scale of the accident and believed no radioactive materials had leaked, but local residents feel quite differently about it.

A number of atomic energy facilities are located in Tokaimura, where a criticality accident occurred at a nuclear fuel processing facility in 1999. In that accident, residents of the area were exposed to radiation. Considering what happened then, the agency should have made the accident public promptly, but it handled the situation very poorly.

With the scandal following on the incident at Monju, the JAEA’s very existence will be called into question.

Hakubun Shimomura, minister of Education, criticized the agency’s handling of the accident saying, “Amid the public’s distrust of atomic energy, the JAEA lacked a sense of urgency.” This is obvious. Meanwhile the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said it intends to include the resumption of operations at nuclear power plants in a growth strategy to be compiled in June.

How understanding are the people of Japan going to be about this desire to rush ahead with the restart of nuclear power plants while no culture of atomic energy safety has been established?

(Originally published on May 27, 2013)