Would a Canadian reactor have staved off the Fukushima nuclear disaster?

On March 14, 2011, three days after a 16 metre tsunami knocked out the cooling systems of four of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Washington Post’s Slate website carried a column by Anne Applebaum in which the Pulitzer Prize–winning author gave voice to a widely shared sense of disbelief: “If the Japanese can’t build a completely safe nuclear reactor, who can?”

One is tempted to write, “Canadians could have, had they been given the chance.” After all, Japanese nuclear engineers engaged in extensive studies of Canadian deuterium (heavy water) technology throughout the 1970s. In August 1979, however, Japanese bureaucrats decided against constructing CANDUs, making Japan the only country in Asia generating electricity with nuclear power not to have at least one CANDU or CANDU-derived reactor. (Korea has four, China two, Pakistan one; 14 of India’s 16 power plants are CANDU-derived.)

At the time Japanese bureaucrats said no to CANDU, Japan’s U.S.-designed light water reactors of the type then already in operation at Fukushima were down for maintenance or refuelling for as long as six months a year. The extremely low efficiency rates of Japanese LWRs were in marked contrast to the 80 percent and higher operating levels that would be achieved within a very few years by CANDUs in neighbouring Korea. In fact, it would take decades for LWRs anywhere to reach near 90 percent operating efficiency. Japanese LWRs on average still operate at lower levels.

Although one cannot speculate with total confidence how a CANDU would have behaved when jolted by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake followed by the onslaught of successive tsunamis, one can safely say that by adopting the far more efficient CANDUs, Japanese utilities could have avoided building more than 50 reactors in order to supply Japanese consumers with a mere 29 percent of their electricity needs.

So why did Japanese decision makers opt for inefficient LWRs? To answer that question, one has to forget for a moment that the world’s fastest computer today is made in Japan. Japanese nuclear energy policy is everything that the country’s efficient export industries are not: it is a field where scientists and politicians distrust each other, where decisions on reactor type have been determined by political ambition and diplomatic necessity, where bureaucrats place a higher priority on turf wars than on rational decisions, where monopolies are shielded from responsibility for bad risks and where safety concerns are addressed by public relations departments.

The origins of the Fukushima reactors—and the disaster they have caused—can be traced to the Cold War, when the dream of prosperity through the magic of the atom came to be utilized by the United States as a diplomatic tool against the Soviet Union. The first hint Japanese leaders had that they might be permitted to share in the benefits of nuclear power came on December 8, 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his Atoms for Peace speech at the United Nations. Eisenhower promised that the atom would “provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

At first glance, Japan in the 1950s would seem to have been an ideal testing ground for nuclear power. The country was resource-poor, recovering from the ravages of war. It had scientists familiar with nuclear technology and possessed leaders who saw in atomic energy a potential success story that could catapult them into high office. Perhaps no single leader exercised more influence on Japanese nuclear energy policy than Matsutaro Shoriki, president and owner of the Yomiuri newspaper and its broadcasting affiliate, Nippon Television. A former Class A war crimes suspect, who came to enjoy close relations with the CIA, Shoriki would arrange to have himself appointed the first head of Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency. Already in his seventies, Shoriki was a man in a hurry. For Shoriki, nuclear power plants meant cheap electricity, which could be translated into popular support as well as financial backing from utilities and power generation equipment manufacturers.

But in spite of all the above seeming advantages, the introduction of nuclear power to Japan would forever be seen in Cold War terms, actively promoted by a pro-American right wing and equally energetically opposed by the left. Typical of the difficulties faced by proponents of nuclear power in Japan was the outburst of anti-American feeling within months of the Atoms for Peace speech when the crew of the Japanese tuna fishing vessel Lucky Dragon No. 5 were exposed to massive doses of radiation from an American hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean near the Bikini Atoll. While the radio operator of the doomed fishing vessel lay dying in hospital, some 30 million Japanese signed a petition demanding an end to American hydrogen bomb testing.

Japan’s scientific community was also unenthusiastic about nuclear power. Japanese physicists, many of whom had bad memories of being cajoled by the military into working on a futile wartime nuclear weapons program, wished nothing more than to be free of political influence in their research choices. In 1957, Japan’s only Nobel prize–winning physicist, Hideki Yukawa—the last prominent scientist to allow his name to be associated with government policy—resigned from Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission after Shoriki unilaterally announced a plan to build nuclear power plants.

For Shoriki, however, the clock was ticking quickly. Recognizing that after the Lucky Dragon incident public support for the peaceful application of nuclear technology was lacking, he mobilized his media empire to begin promoting a more favourable image of the atom. Shoriki cooperated with U.S. diplomats in organizing a six-week exhibition in a downtown Tokyo park to promote the peaceful use of the atom. Thanks to daily publicity in Shoriki’s media empire, some 360,000 visitors, including schoolchildren, saw the exhibits. CIA reports at the time described the exhibition as a great success.

Shoriki also imported the Walt Disney–produced propaganda program Our Friend the Atom and had it broadcast on his network. But Shoriki and the CIA would soon part ways when it became clear that Shoriki wanted to move quickly to turn nuclear power into electricity—and votes. A recently declassified report describes Shoriki as so impatient that he asked to have an American demonstration reactor on display in Tokyo delivered to his home, thinking apparently, or so the report claims, that he could use it to generate electricity for his family. Shoriki’s haste, his alienation of experts and his bombastic personality brought about a temporary rift with the United States on nuclear technology, resulting in a single, one-time importing of a non-U.S. reactor, a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated Magnox from Britain.

Lax attitudes toward nuclear safety in Japan can be traced directly to the Magnox deal, signed in haste after the rift between Shoriki and the CIA. Graphite-moderated reactors, such as the Magnox, similar although not identical to the Soviet reactors of the type used at Chernobyl, were notoriously unstable. Britain had just experienced radiation leakage from a Magnox and therefore informed Shoriki that it would not take responsibility for any accidents. Not only would this not deter Shoriki from arranging for the importing of a Magnox, but the contract would also introduce to Japan the “no liability” clause in purchases of plants from the United States. The GE-designed power plants at Fukushima Daiichi Power Station conformed to this pattern.

One can only wonder if the Fukushima reactors would have been plagued by so many design flaws had responsibility for failures been more clearly defined from the start. Although safety equipment did succeed in shutting off the reactor as soon as the quake struck on March 11, emergency diesel generators that should have kept coolants circulating to handle residual heat could not be made to work. Placed in the basements of relatively weak turbine buildings, situated on the seaward sides of reactors, the generators were immediately flooded by the tsunami. But even if they could have been coaxed into life, diesel fuel would not have been available since the fuel tanks—also constructed on the seaward side of the reactors—had already been swept away by the waves.

Another consequence of the no-liability clause is that legal responsibility to compensate residents who had to be evacuated from the area around the crippled Fukushima plants is now in dispute. The Japanese government is demanding that the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, bear the brunt, while TEPCO executives point a finger at the government. In the meantime, General Electric is totally off the hook.

To be fair, the choices Japanese decision makers had in nuclear technology have been far narrower than in the case of Canada. In the field of nuclear energy, Canada has enjoyed tremendous advantages over Japan and continues to do so. Canada benefitted technologically from the U.S.-led World War Two weapons program but was far enough away from day-to-day military concerns at Los Alamos that Canadian scientists could look ahead to the peaceful applications of nuclear energy well before Eisenhower’s UN speech. Already in 1945, C.D. Howe, speaking to provincial premiers, would interpret the significance of the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in terms of what he called “the practical use” of the atom in the near future. As a result, after World War Two, political leaders in Canada could steer tax dollars toward the building of research and demonstration reactors where Canadian scientists could work toward goals they shared with their country’s leaders, all at a time when politicians and scientists in Japan were not talking to each other.

Japanese choices in nuclear technology were also constrained in other ways. While there was much support within Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry to import CANDUs, it is doubtful that MITI could ever have arranged for a significant shift away from heavy Japanese reliance on U.S.-built LWRs. CANDU’s biggest drawback was that it was not American. By the early 1970s when MITI approached Atomic Energy of Canada to begin discussions that might have resulted in the purchase of CANDUs, the burgeoning Japanese trade surplus was already triggering resentment in the United States. The trade surplus would grow rapidly, necessitating importing big-ticket items from the United States.

Moreover, the inherent simplicity of the CANDU seemed to offer arguments against its introduction. Would it lead to future technology improvements, such as the Fast Breeder Reactor, which promised to produce more fuel than it consumed? After all, the CANDU was designed to run on un-enriched uranium partly because Canada lacked enrichment know-how and partly because sale of CANDUs was intended to pave the way for sales of Canadian uranium. The CANDU’s designers chose a low-pressure containment vessel, or calandria, because in the 1950s Canada did not have heavy industries that could produce equipment of the kind needed for the much higher-energy LWR. In the end, according to both Japanese and Canadian sources close to the negotiations, the CANDU fell victim to a bureaucratic turf war between MITI and the Science and Technology Agency that had taken over responsibility for the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1977, when MITI announced that the Electric Power Development Corporation, a MITI affiliate, would introduce the CANDU to Japan, STA officials were miffed and proceeded to oppose all future attempts to do so.

Finally, bureaucratic inertia also played a role. According to a former bureaucrat close to Canada-Japan negotiations, a major source of resistance against the CANDU seems to have come from the nuclear power industry and the utilities, where senior executives responsible for total reliance on licensed production of U.S.-designed LWRs were still in positions of influence. As the former bureaucrat explained, “the last thing these people wanted was to see the introduction of simpler, more efficient CANDUs.”

Were one to be rude, one might mention greed as a factor. We now know that TEPCO had enormous financial resources and that executives had every opportunity to increase safety at the aging Fukushima plants. TEPCO had been warned to prepare for a tidal wave significantly higher than Fukushima Daiichi’s 5.6 metre retaining wall. The poor design features of the Fukushima plant had all been pointed out at various times.

A non-mainstream publication, Shukan Kin’yobi (Weekly Friday), accused TEPCO of spending money not on emergency preparedness but on payments to 25 prominent public figures to appear in advertising aimed at convincing consumers that safety was a high priority for the electric utility. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano demonstrated that he understood public sentiment when he said on television that TEPCO, and not the taxpayer, should be made to pay for the damage and disruption caused by the failed reactors. His statement came roughly at the same time as news reports detailing the real estate and other holdings TEPCO would sell off to raise ¥100 billion (US$1.2 billion) to pay just to stabilize four damaged reactors. The assets included some 33 holiday resorts and retreats for use by TEPCO employees, the best of which were set aside for senior executives. The utility also promised to eliminate 21 directorships, given to former executives and company friends who were required to do virtually nothing in return for lavish remuneration and copious perks.

Although a thorough comparison of the safety of Japanese LWRs versus CANDUs is beyond the scope of this article, there is one piece of incontrovertible evidence in CANDU’s favour. The only fatal accident in Japan due to radiation exposure involving a nuclear facility took place in 1999 at a uranium enrichment plant where three workers were exposed to high levels of radiation, two of whom subsequently died. The CANDU runs on natural uranium and does not require enrichment.1 As for radiation leakage into the atmosphere due to meltdowns, because CANDU uses a heavy water moderator, which absorbs fewer neutrons than light water, less fissile material is required to achieve a controlled chain reaction; hence there is less of a mess when things go wrong.

“The CANDU is not prone to meltdowns,” said Atsushi Kasai, former laboratory chief of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. As to why Japanese utilities did not buy any CANDUs, Kasai added, “We scientists were never consulted on reactor types. Such decisions were always made elsewhere.”

  1. The latest version of the CANDU, the ACR-1000, uses fuel that is “slightly” enriched, to about one quarter to one half of levels for LWR needs