It’s not that life is stranger than fiction, it’s that on certain occasions it seems to directly follow a script written by the best comedian in Hollywood. It has just happened in Niigata, Japan, where a mistake in the purest Mr. Bean style has revealed Tepco, a holding company of electrical companies that provides services to part of the country, and complicated the immediate future of a fundamental power plant. He arrives with two brushstrokes to understand the tragicomic scope of what has just happened: a hilarious oblivion and the future of the world’s largest nuclear plant.
We explain ourselves.
Where Are My Papers? A similar question must have been asked by a Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) employee last week when he realized he had misplaced documents related to unit six of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant. To be more precise, they dealt with the fire and flood protection system, although Tepco emphasizes that they do not contain sensitive information for the safety of the reactor or related to nuclear material. The company has managed to recover part of those lost papers, although not all. A few days ago, at least, it was missing 38 pages.
And how did you lose them? Due to an anthological oversight that has probably raised more than one eyebrow both in the Tepco offices and especially in those of the Japanese regulators. What happened has been reported by Bloomberg and the company itself through a brief but precise statement: on Friday, May 19, an employee took 80 pages of the company home, from where he had planned to telework. He first took a bus and then got into his car. Problem: during that time he supported the documents on the roof of the vehicle. And there they stayed because of a blunder after he entered, settled behind the wheel and started the engine to head down the road towards his home.
What happened was a blunder, but it could have remained a slap on the wrist or perhaps a fight in the company, without much public significance. A day later, however, the company received a tip from a Kashiwazaki resident who claimed to have found what appeared to be lost documents about the nuclear power plant. That set off alarms, led to internal checks, a “strict warning” for the employee and his supervisor, and a reminder from Tepco about what rules must be followed to remove documentation from the offices.
Why is it serious? For the mistake itself. And also because of the context, which has contributed to the incident gaining notoriety. As Bloomberg recalls, the event comes at a sensitive time for Tepco and the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant: shortly before, the Nuclear Regulation Authority -NRA- had decided to postpone the restart of the plant due to safety concerns. . In its report, the NRA warned that it could not verify that corrective measures were adopted in four of the 27 points analyzed.
Can you go further? The newspaper The Japan News provides some more clue and points out that in recent years there has been damage to intrusion detection equipment and an episode with a security breach in 2020. On the 17th the NRA decided to maintain its ban to move nuclear fuel within the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, a veto that it adopted in 2021 and has decided not to lift.
The measure is important because in practice it prevents the reactivation of reactor seven. “It depends on Tepco how long our inspection takes,” Shinsuke Yamanaka, head of the ANR, explained last week. Bloomberg or the South China Morning Post slip that what happened with the papers can erode the confidence of the authorities and cause the plant to remain closed.
Is the center important? Yes. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant incorporates seven units that were commissioned between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s, and is considered the world’s largest nuclear power plant by net electrical output. Its reactors generate 8,212 MW, which allows it to provide electricity to around 16 million homes. At least in 2020 it stood out on the energy map as the fourth largest electricity generating station, only behind the Itaipu hydroelectric plants, the Three Gorges dam and the Guri dam. It is located in Niigata Prefecture, 215 km northwest of Tokyo.
And does the context matter? Yes and a lot. With the energy transition and those derived from the war in Ukraine as a backdrop, Japan has decided to make a move unimaginable a few years ago, when after the Fukushima crisis it decided to promote a nuclear blackout. The country is betting again on this type of energy, which in its day, before the accident in March 2011, represented more than 30% of the energy produced. In 2022, its prime minister announced a series of measures along these lines, such as the construction of a new generation of plants, reactivating reactors or extending their useful life beyond six decades.
Top image: IAEA Imagebann (Flickr)
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