Green Action’s Aileen Mioko Smith

Aileen Mioko Smith first became involved in environmental pollution issues in the early seventies when she and her husband at that time, the late American photojournalist William Eugene Smith, photographed the victims of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Kyushu. The Minamata pictures now serve as a record of what can happen when considerations of safety take second place to demands of the economy.

Since that time, Mioko Smith has moved from journalism to activism. Her focus, however, remains the same as it was back then: environmental pollution. She is now executive director of the NGO Green Action, a group which is trying to raise awareness of the dangers of Japan’s nuclear energy program.

At the moment, Japan has 55 commercial nuclear power plants that supply about 31% of the country’s electricity, with imported uranium used as the main fuel source in light water reactors. The Japanese government also has a long-term plan for what it sees as more efficient use of nuclear energy. This involves reprocessing waste from the light water reactors: separating plutonium (a non-natural element), low-level unusable uranium, and high-level toxic waste. The government hopes that this plutonium and uranium will eventually be used in so-called ‘fast breeder’ reactors, which do as their name suggests by ‘breeding’ more plutonium. In fast breeder reactors, the plutonium fuel, surrounded by the unusable uranium, releases neutrons which convert the uranium into more plutonium.

The idea is that Japan will eventually become much more self-sufficient in terms of nuclear energy, and for this purpose, a prototype fast breeder reactor was built at Monju in Fukui. In 1995, however, a fire and a sodium leak led to the suspension of operations there.

Opinion is divided about the use of nuclear energy. Some see it as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, while others believe the cost and danger outweigh any advantages. In Japan, a country of intense seismic activity, questions of safety would appear to be particularly relevant, and many question the country’s pioneering role in utilizing nuclear technology. In 2007, alarm bells rang when an earthquake caused a fire at Japan’s biggest light water reactor, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, leading to its suspension.

I talked about these and other issues related to the country’s nuclear energy policy with Aileen Mioko Smith.

IP. Could you please tell us more about your role as the executive director of Green Action, and that of your group?

AMS. My work with Green Action has different roles. One is preventative. For example, the fast breeder nuclear reactor at Monju is a major risk, and we’re saying, look at the risks. The other role that I have is in trying to show that Japan is in need of a good energy policy. To do this we have to show how bad the current policy is.

IP. How bad is the current energy policy?

AMS. Japan spends 64% of its research and development energy budget on nuclear energy, so all the rest gets squashed in: renewables, energy efficiency, conservation. All those have a much smaller percentage spent on them because of the emphasis on nuclear energy. It’s like a big roadblock stopping Japan from going forward with a decent energy policy. The main part of the nuclear program focuses on developing a fast breeder reactor that will use plutonium, but they are not even near getting a prototype reactor to work. The commercialization of the reactor has been delayed eight times and it hasn’t produced any electricity.

IP. I know there have been problems with fast breeder reactors worldwide. Are any actually running?

AMS. In France they finally got a demonstration reactor to show the viability of such a plant, but it was shut down more than it was ever used. They have given up on it now. Other countries, like Russia, also have fast breeder reactor programs, but Japan is the main country trying to move forward on it. However, the reactor at Monju has been shutdown for thirteen and a half years because of a leak.

IP. What are the dangers in the increased use of plutonium that the Japanese government is planning?

AMS. One of the biggest problems with the commercial use of plutonium is that you need phenomenal amounts to make any dent in energy-use in a country. When you see a nuclear bomb go off, it’s a huge amount of energy, but it’s one instant. If you imagine a whole nation and the electricity it uses, year in, year out, that’s an incredible amount of energy. So if you can get a reactor commercialized and working, you will need a massive amount of plutonium to create electricity. In order to supply the same amount of electricity that uranium does in Japan, you would need 400 tons of plutonium. That is more than the plutonium used in all the nuclear weapons in the whole world. This use of plutonium opens a Pandora’s box, where there is mass use of this material transported by roads, put in plants, etc.

IP. And, at the moment, this plutonium is being stockpiled?

AMS. The breeder program that is supposed to consume the plutonium has now been delayed, so while that’s happening, the separation of plutonium continues and we’ve ended up with about 45 tons of plutonium stockpiled.

IP. Where is it being stored?

AMS. A few tons in Japan, in Tokai and Rokkasho, and the remainder, about 40 tons, in Europe. Now we have all this plutonium, and Japan is officially committed to not stockpiling plutonium, but we’re getting towards the amount in half the nuclear weapons in the US.

IP. Recently, there were protests about a shipload of so-called MOX fuel that was brought to Japan. Could you explain a little about MOX fuel and why it is being used?

AMS. When it became clear that there would be no progress with the fast breeder program, the policy was shifted to the pluthermal program of burning plutonium in (normal) light water nuclear reactors. The fuel is called MOX. It’s a mix of plutonium and uranium. Plutonium is first separated from Japan’s spent nuclear fuel at reprocessing plants in Japan and Europe. It is then mixed with uranium and fabricated into fuel for light water reactors.

So there are three parts to Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle. You have the fast breeder program, the main part of the program, which is not creating any electricity at the moment. In the meantime all this plutonium is being separated out in Europe. The second part involves using the processing plant at Rokkasho, the most expensive plant in the world, to separate more plutonium, which you need like a hole in the head because you already have too much plutonium. Then the third part of the program says, we have all this plutonium we better use up, so let’s use it in the MOX fuel program.

IP. What are the issues involved in using MOX fuel?

AMS. Other countries like France and Germany use or used MOX. The problem is not when it is running smoothly; the problem is if you have an accident that puts stress on the fuel. There have been no proper tests carried out on MOX fuel under accident conditions.

France wanted to finance some but that didn’t work out.

IP. And Japan is planning to use it at about 16 different nuclear plants in the future, is that right?

AMS. Yes. Also, the French safety agency didn’t allow what is called ‘high burn-up.’ The longer you keep the fuel inside, the more dangerous it gets—the more the MOX fuel can crumble. But Japan isn’t even doing experiments. They are starting with high burn-up from the very start. There is no precedent in the whole world for what Japan is doing here. In the US, they were required to carry out tests in the actual reactor with the same kind of MOX fuel they were going to use. They were going to test the fuel rods and the effects of high burn-up. But two years into the program there were some other issues which stopped the testing. So now the US MOX program is lying dead because they have to test first before starting. Japan isn’t testing, it is just going ahead. An expert on MOX safety, Dr Edwin Lyman, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the people living around the area in Japan that uses the fuel are going to be like guinea pigs.

IP. The main argument in support of nuclear power nowadays is that it is a cleaner alternative to fossil fuel. What would you say in response to that?

AMS. I would say that there aren’t enough nuclear power plants to deal with the CO2 problem now, and building new plants will actually lead to the release of more global warming gases; more than coal, some analysts think. Not because a nuclear power plant releases CO2 as it operates, but because the costs are so high. If you invest in nuclear, you can’t invest in other renewables. It takes money from other sources.

IP. Doesn’t the fact that Japan is earthquake prone also mean that nuclear facilities are often shut down, meaning we end up relying on fossil fuels anyway?

AMS. The reason that CO2 releases were so high as a result of the 2007 earthquake that shut down the nuclear plant at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa was that you depend on these huge facilities that could all crash at once. So the more you depend on nuclear, the more danger you have of CO2 levels spiking because you have to shut down the nuclear power plants.

To avoid producing greenhouse gases, Japanese utilities are also trying to run their current plants at higher capacity, which is dangerous. So we have more than fifty power plants in Japan, many which are aging seriously, being made to run a full-marathon when they could only run a half-marathon when they were younger. When one of the reactors is stopped, like in the case of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, there is more pressure put on the other reactors. There was a reactor in Fukui where the main pipe leading out of the reactor got so damaged it was dangerous. There is a safety requirement for the pipe to be of a certain thickness. A crack ran so deep that it reached that thickness figure, so they then changed the figure to accept a thinner pipe. It happened again and once more that figure was reset. But that’s just one example of the kind of risks you run when you are trying to maintain capacity.

* * *

In June, the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency gave the go-ahead for the resumption of commercial operations at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa pending further safety inspections and local government approval. Critics of the proposed re-opening include a group of concerned Japanese scientists and engineers who outlined their concerns in a leaflet issued in 2008. They question how safe a nuclear power plant can be when it is located in close proximity to an active 30km-long sub-marine fault.

In the last few months, there have also been significant developments in the pluthermal program. The first shipment of MOX fuel in eight years arrived from France in May, destined for use at light water reactors in Shizuoka, Kyushu and Shikoku. Pluthermal operations are set to begin again later this year, with a view to using MOX at 16 different reactors by 2015.

Meanwhile, the envisaged future of Japan’s nuclear energy program, the Monju fast breeder reactor, remains closed, but at the time of writing the government announced the latest plans for a reopening of the plant in February or March 2010.

For more info:







IP. 「グリーン・アクション」での活動について説明していただけますか?

AMS. 活動の内容は様々です。一つは予防的なもの、例えば、高速増殖炉「もんじゅ」は危険度が高いのですが、我々の役割の一つはまずその危険性を皆さんに知っていただくことです。また一方、日本には新しいエネルギー政策が必要であるということを皆さんに知っていただくための活動もしています。現在政府が推進しようとしている政策が間違っているということをまず皆さんに知っていただく必要があるのです。

IP. 現在のエネルギー政策の問題点は?

AMS. 日本は新しいエネルギーに関する研究開発予算の64%を核エネルギーの研究開発に使ってしまっているために、本来もっと予算を投入すべき再生可能エネルギー、エネルギー効率、省エネルギー、といった分野の研究が立ち遅れています。「核エネルギー研究」という大きな障害物があるために日本は正しい道を進むことができないでいるのです。日本の核開発計画はプルトニウムを使う高速増殖炉に重点を置いていますが、高速増殖炉は問題が多すぎて今もって試運転もままならない状況です。その実用化計画は8回も頓挫しました。それほど問題が多いのです。

IP. 世界を見渡してみても高速増殖炉はうまくいってないようですが、成功例はあるのでしょうか?

AMS. フランスでは実証炉の臨界にこぎ着けましたが、燃料漏れや故障が相次いだため最終的に閉鎖され、フランスは高速増殖炉の開発から事実上撤退しました。ロシアなど、日本以外にも高速増殖炉の開発計画を持っている国はありますが、それらの国の中でも日本は特に高速増殖炉に固執しています。しかし「もんじゅ」はナトリウム漏れ事故により14年半も停止したままです。


AMS. プルトニウム利用計画の最大の問題点は、省エネルギー政策にプルトニウムを利用しようとすると大量のプルトニウムが必要になるということです。原爆は膨大なエネルギーを発生しますがそれは一瞬です。国全体が必要とする電力は膨大なので、日本が年間必要とする電気を発電するには400トンものプルトニウムが必要となります。これは世界中の核兵器に使われているプルトニウムの総量を超える量です。このように大量のプルトニウムが輸送されてきて日本の原子炉に投入されるという「パンドラの箱」を開けてはならないのです。

IP. 今現在どれくらいのプルトニウムが備蓄されているのでしょうか?

AMS. プルトニウムを消費する増殖炉計画が遅れているために、使用済み核燃料から出て貯蔵されているプルトニウムは現在、およそ45トンになっています。

IP. どこに貯蔵されているのですか?

AMS. 茨城県東海村と青森県六ケ所村に数トン、残りの約40トンはヨーロッパにあります。日本は表向きはプルトニウムを備蓄していないことになっているのですが、実際には米軍が所有する核兵器の半分に匹敵するプルトニウムを保有しつつあるのです。

IP. プルトニウムからできるMOX燃料が船で日本に持ち込まれたことに対する抗議行動が最近ありました。MOX燃料とは一体どんなものでしょうか?

AMS. 高速増殖炉計画が頓挫したのでその計画は軽水炉でプルトニウムを燃料として使うプルサーマル計画にすり替えられました。その燃料はプルトニウムとウランの混合物で、これがMOX燃料と呼ばれているものです。日本の原子力発電所で出た使用済み核燃料が日本とヨーロッパの再処理工場で再処理されて先ずプルトニウムが分離されます。それをウランと混ぜてMOX燃料を作り軽水炉で燃料として使おうというのです。


IP. MOX燃料の問題点は?

AMS. フランスやドイツもMOX燃料を使いました。発電所がスムーズに稼働しているうちはいいのですが、MOX燃料に圧力が掛かるような事故が発生したときは大事故につながる可能性があります。事故発生時のMOX燃料に関するきちんとした調査研究は一度も実施されたことがありません。この問題についてフランスは予算を組もうとしましたが結局うまくいきませんでした。

IP. 日本では今後16の原子力発電所でMOX燃料を使う計画があるということですが?

AMS. そうです。しかしフランス安全庁はMOX燃料をいわゆる「高燃焼度燃料」として使うことを許可しませんでした。MOX燃料は炉の中にある時間が長いほど危険度が増すのですが、日本はその危険性についての実験も行わずに「高燃焼度燃料」として使おうとしています。いま日本がやろうとしているようなことを実際におこなった国は世界中どこにもありません。アメリカではMOX燃料を高燃焼させる実験を実際の原子炉でおこなう計画を立てていましたが、何らかの問題が発生してその実験を中止しました。実験ができぬままにMOX燃料を使って本格的に原子炉を稼働させるわけにはいきませんからアメリカではMOX燃料計画自体が暗礁に乗り上げています。しかし日本は実験を経ないで計画を実行しようとしています。MOX燃料に詳しく、「憂慮する科学者同盟」に所属するエドウィン・ライマン博士は、日本の原子力発電所でMOX燃料が使われればその周辺住民は実験用のモルモットと同じだ、と言っています。

IP. 原子力発電肯定派の意見はもっぱら化石燃料に代わるクリーンなエネルギー源、ということのようですが、この意見については?

AMS. 原子力発電で地球温暖化の原因となる二酸化炭素の問題を解決するには発電所の数が足りません。では数を増やせばいいのかというと今度は建設や燃料・廃棄物の輸送などによる多量の地球温暖化ガスの発生につながる。石炭をエネルギー源にするよりも結果的に多くの温暖化ガスの発生につながる、と専門家は指摘しています。原子力に投資すればその他の再生可能なエネルギーに対する投資ができなくなります。それほど原子力にはお金が掛かるのです。

IP. 日本は地震が多いから化石燃料に頼り続けることが難しい、しかし原子力発電所も地震には弱いですよね?

AMS. 柏崎刈羽原子力発電所の操業を停止させた2007年の新潟県中越沖地震の結果炭酸ガスが大量に放出されたのは、一度にすべての施設が停止してしまうような巨大施設に依存している結果です。原子力に頼れば頼るほど地震や事故によって発電所が停止した時の炭酸ガス排出の危険性が大きくなります。


* * *




Share and Enjoy:     These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Propeller
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis

Comments are closed.