Newsletter of EFN - Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy

March 23rd, 2006

The fire at Oi nuclear plant in Japan causes no victims but is widely reported in the media

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Dear friends of clean energy,

A fire occurred at the Oi nuclear power plant in the Fukui Prefecture in Japan yesterday, wednesday 22 March 2006.

The Oi (sometimes spelled Ohi) nuclear power plant has four pressurized water reactors of 1120 MW net output each.

The Oi nuclear power plant is located about 380 kilometers (236 miles) west of Tokyo.

Oi-1 and Oi-2 were connected to the grid in 1977 and 1978. Oi-3 and Oi-4 were connected to the grid in 1991 and 1992.

The fire happened outside the reactor containment, in a building between the reactors number 3 and 4. This building is a low-level waste-incinerating facility.

The fire started at about 9.40am GMT (6:40 pm Japanese time on wednesday).

It took the firemen with protective clothing about two hours to reach the exact location of the fire and then a few more hours to extinguish the fire, because of the smoke which made it difficult to approach the fire.

Two of the workers of the incineration facility have inhaled some smoke and were taken to a hospital for medical surveyance and treatment. Their lives are not in danger, and they are not seriously injured. A third worker was also evacuated from the site but was not injured at all. Other personnel at the plant remained at their work stations and the four reactors continued to operate, unaffected by the fire in the incineration building which is not directly related to the electricity production.

No radioactivity was released in the environment (and only very low and harmless levels of radiation, if any at all, was released inside the incineration building).

The overcoats, overboots, gloves of workers and other similar items usually incinerated in this low-level waste incineration facility contain only low levels of radiation (comparable to natural levels of radioactivity that can be encountered in nature) and therefore such levels of radiation are not dangerous even if there was a small release of radiation inside or outside the building.

See more details about this story at:

If a similar fire had happened anywhere else than in a nuclear plant, no one on the other side of the planet, outside the Fukui prefecture, would have ever heard about this story in the press.

In short: a small fire in a room, two workers inhale some smoke before they leave the room, the fire is extinguished without much harm by the local firemen (although it did take them a few hours to do so), no one has died nor was seriously injured. Two workers have inhaled some smoke but their lives are not at risk. And at no moment has there been any danger for the safety of the reactor or concerning the used nuclear fuel stored in a distinct nearby building.


A few comments come to my mind when seeing this story in the news:

A nuclear event is a perfect story for the news media and press agencies: you can sell the story all around the world even if (almost) nothing happened, transforming minor incidents, which of course happen once in a while even in the nuclear industry (although much less often than anywhere else), into a major news story.

The very fact that news of such an accident reaches us all the way from Japan, shows how quickly the information is forwarded when it comes to nuclear subjects.

This is, in fact, a good thing, rather reassuring, and shows to what extent the nuclear industry is transparent. The information isn't hidden and even incidents and minor accidents are communicated worldwide.

Although this event looks more like a minor industrial incident than a major accident (no radioactivity was dispersed in the environment, no one died or even was seriously injured), it will probably erode a bit more the public confidence in nuclear energy in Japan (and around the world).

There's still lot's of work to be done to put these stories in a broader perspective, comparing them to the situation in other industries, and to inform the public completely about the much greater dangers of the alternatives (especially coal and gas) !

Incidents or small accidents such as this one at Oi in Japan do happen about once a year in the nuclear industry somewhere in the world.

Each of them, because the world "nuclear" is mentioned, becomes a major story on TV and in the news.

However it should be noted that on the same day as this small fire who killed nobody occurred in Japan, several dozen coal miners including some children DIED in coal mines, many of them in China, but also in Central and Southern America, the Russian Federation, Eastern Europe... but these DEATHS (not just minor injuries) are usually unreported in the media.

It should be noticed that such DEATHS in coal mines happen not once a year, but EVERY DAY (maybe that's the reason it's not as interesting for the media?) in various locations around the world.

The numbers show clearly that the main problem in this regard (and the main cause of the continuation of frequent deadly accidents in the energy sector) is not the safety of nuclear plants, it's how the media can influence public policies and energy choices with distorted news, amplifying some incidents in the nuclear industry, while not reporting in the same manner the casualties happening every day in the coal industry.

The unsafe and dangerous coal industry could however be easily replaced by the certainly imperfect (nobody's perfect) but nevertheless much, much, much, much safer and cleaner nuclear industry.

But the pressure exercized on the public opinion and on the politicians by anti-nuclear ideologists and by one-sided, amplified and distorted news stories such as this one, makes nuclear energy (unrightly so) appear as unacceptable in people's (and politician's) minds, and therefore the coal industry continues to kill many dozens of workers each day, and no one really cares about that, because it's hardly reported at all in the news.

Here's a recent example: 17 people died just a few days ago on March 13th (and many more since then) at the Rongcheng coal mine in China. Had you heard about that one? http://news.monstersandcritics.com/asiapacific/article_1136632.php/17_dead_five_missing_in_gas_explosion_at_China_coal_mine
Similar accidents occur almost every day somewhere in the world.

As you can see in this case, a coal accident killing 17 coal workers is echoed in the press (when it happens to be reported, because in most cases it isn't reported at all) by a much shorter article than a "nuclear" event without any victims and without any risk as regards the safety of the reactor.

Nuclear energy could in fact very efficiently prevent these many deaths in coal mines, if the real picture and if ALL incidents and accidents (not just the ones in the nuclear industry) were correctly reported to the public.

Dozens of people continue dying each day because of our inability of comparing risks.

This is the current situation, but what about the future?

What will happen when we will run out of oil in very few years from now, if we don't develop nuclear energy?

It might then be not just dozens of victims, but perhaps thousands of casualties each day, not only in Japan, but all around the world, resulting from the return of poverty, lack of heating in winter, and food shortages, especially in regions such as Japan and Western Europe who have little or no domestic energy resources available.

Remember what life and civilization were like before oil permitted the development of our modern civilization. Having no energy at all (or too little) kills much more than the burning of coal, and even more so than a safe and clean energy source such as nuclear energy.

Of course, we should always remain vigilant to prevent and limit the consequences of any accidents and the lessons can and must be learned, and the procedures improved from this event at Oi in Japan.

The causes of the Oi fire must be understood in order to prevent this from happening again. In this case it seems to me that the causes of the fire should be understood to improve the incineration procedures and/or equipment and to prevent the repetition of a similar fire. In some countries, the slightly contaminated protective clothings are not incinerated and burnt into ashes, but just compacted by a mechanical press into drums. The fire-fighting procedures and the training of fire-fighters might also be improved. Several hours to approach a minor fire, and several more hours to extinguish it seems to be a rather long time. This delay could perhaps be improved with more efficient fire-fighting equipments and/or better training of personnel. It can also be observed however, that in order to protect the lives of fire-fighters and avoid taking unecessary risks, it is also necessary, if the fire poses no immediate danger, to take some time to think and organize before intervening.

In any case, the lessons should be learned, and the procedures improved, but at the same time the relatively limited consequences of the Oi fire also reminds us how safe the nuclear industry is, compared to the daily casualties in coal mines, gas explosions and other industries.


Yours sincerely, with kindest ecological regards,

 Bruno Comby.

President of EFN
Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy    



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