View Mobile Site

Dozens of problems found at nuclear plant struck by deadly quake in northern Japan

    KASHIWAZAKI, Japan — A long list of problems — including radiation leaks, burst pipes and fires — came to light Tuesday at the world’s largest nuclear power plant, a day after it was hit by a powerful earthquake.
    The malfunctions and a delay in reporting them fueled concerns about the safety of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, which have suffered a string of accidents and cover-ups.
    ‘‘They raised the alert too late. I have sent stern instructions that such alerts must be raised seriously and swiftly,’’ Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo. ‘‘Those involved should repent their actions.’’
    Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is the world’s largest nuclear plant in power output capacity. Japan’s nuclear plants supply about 30 percent of the country’s electricity, but its dependence on nuclear power is coupled with deep misgivings over safety.
    The power plant suffered broken pipes, water leaks and spills of radioactive waste when it was hit by the earthquake Monday, the plant’s operator said.
    Signs of problems, however, came first not from the officials, but in a plume of smoke that rose up when the quake triggered a small fire at an electrical transformer.
    It was announced only 12 hours later that the magnitude 6.8 temblor also caused a leak of about 315 gallons of water containing radioactive material. Officials said the water leak was well within safety standards. The water was flushed into the sea.
    The company also said a small amount of radioactive materials cobalt-60 and chromium-51 had been emitted into the atmosphere from an exhaust stack.
    Later Tuesday, it said 50 cases of ‘‘malfunctioning and trouble’’ had been found. Four of the plant’s seven reactors were running at the time of the quake, and they were all shut down automatically by a safety mechanism.
    Officials said there was no harm to the environment, but acknowledged it took a day to discover about 100 drums of low-level nuclear waste that were overturned, some with the lids open.
    Kensuke Takeuchi, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, called the malfunctions ‘‘minor troubles.’’
    Across town, more than 8,000 residents hunkered down for their second night in shelters. The death toll — nine, with one person missing — was not expected to rise significantly. Most of the newer parts of town escaped major damage.
    For residents, thousands of whom work at the plant, the controversy over its safety compounded already severe problems, which included heavy rains and the threat of landslides, water and power outages, and spotty communications.
    ‘‘Whenever there is an earthquake, the first thing we worry about is the nuclear plant. I worry about whether there will be a fire or something,’’ said Kiyokazu Tsunajima, a tailor who sat outside on his porch with his family, afraid an aftershock might collapse his damaged house.
    ‘‘It’s frightening, but I guess we are used to it,’’ said Ikuko Sato, a young mother who was spending the night in a crowded evacuation center near her home, which was without water or power.
    ‘‘It’s almost the summer swimming season,’’ she said. ‘‘I wonder if it’ll be safe to go in the water.’’
    The area around Kashiwazaki was hit by an earthquake three years ago that killed 67 people, but the plant suffered no damage.
    Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari told TEPCO it must not resume operations at the plant until it has made a thorough safety check. Nuclear power plants around Japan were ordered to conduct inspections.
    The plant in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, 135 miles northwest of Tokyo, eclipsed a nuclear power station in Ontario as the world’s largest power station when it added its seventh reactor in 1997.
    The Japanese plant, which generates 8.2 million kilowatts of electricity, has been plagued with mishaps. In 2001, a radioactive leak was found in the turbine room of one reactor.
    The plant’s safety record and its proximity to a fault line prompted residents to file lawsuits claiming the government had failed to conduct sufficient safety reviews when it approved construction of the plant in the 1970s. But in 2005, a Tokyo court threw out a lawsuit filed by 33 residents, saying there was no error in the government safety reviews.
    Environmentalists have criticized Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy as irresponsible in a nation with such a vulnerability to powerful quakes.
    ‘‘This fire and leakage underscores the threat of nuclear accidents in Japan, especially in earthquake zones,’’ said Jan Beranek, a Greenpeace official in Amsterdam. ‘‘In principle, it’s a bad idea to build nuclear plants in earthquake-prone areas.’’
    Nearly 13,000 people packed into evacuation centers in the quake zone, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. By nightfall, the number dropped to about 8,200.
    Nine people in their 70s or 80s were killed, and 47 were seriously injured. About 450 soldiers to sent to clear rubble, search for survivors under collapsed buildings, and provide food, water and toilets.
    About 50,000 homes were without water and 35,000 were without gas, local official Mitsugu Abe said. About 27,000 households were without power.
    Japan has a history of nuclear accidents, some of them deadly.
    In 2004, five workers at the Mihama nuclear plant in western Japan were killed and six were injured after a corroded pipe ruptured and sprayed plant workers with boiling water and steam. The accident was the nation’s worst at a nuclear facility.
    The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that nuclear plants be built with the capacity to withstand the strongest earthquake to hit its site within 100 years. In a ‘‘safe shutdown earthquake,’’ the chain reaction in the reactor stops, but the cooling system keeps running so excess heat is carried away from the core.
    William Miller, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri, said the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant ‘‘did what it was supposed to. It shut down.’’
    Although its operator said there were leaks, Miller called the amounts he had heard were ‘‘so small as to be negligible.’’
    However, David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that fire and loss of power, both of which occurred at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, are the two most likely causes of meltdowns at nuclear facilities.
    ———
    AP writers Hiroko Tabuchi and Kozo Mizoguchi contributed to this report from Tokyo and AP writer Sarah DiLorenzo contributed from New York.

Interested in viewing premium content?

A subscription is required before viewing this article and other premium content.

Already a registered member and have a subscription?

If you have already purchased a subscription, please log in to view the full article.

Are you registered, but do not have a subscription?

If you are a registed user and would like to purchase a subscription, log in to view a list of available subscriptions.

Interested in becoming a registered member and purchasing a subscription?

Join our community today by registering for a FREE account. Once you have registered for a FREE account, click SUBSCRIBE NOW to purchase access to premium content.

Membership Benefits

  • Instant access to creating Blogs, Photo Albums, and Event listings.
  • Email alerts with the latest news.
  • Access to commenting on articles.

Please wait ...