Quake-damaged nuclear plant in Japan shut down

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KASHIWAZAKI, Japan (AP) – The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear facility is a city unto itself, with parks, broad avenues, a pristine shoreline and dozens upon dozens of buildings linked by futuristic walkways, completely closed off from the outside world.

But Wednesday, authorities ordered the quake-wracked power plant shut down indefinitely – its roads cracked, its sidewalks buckled, an electrical transformer charred by fire – as controversy swelled over conflicting and delayed damage reports.

After a quick inspection, the head of the utility that runs the world’s most powerful electricity generating station summed up the situation succinctly:

“To be honest, it’s a mess,” Tokyo Electric Power Co. President Tsunehisa Katsumata said after accepting an order from the mayor of this northern Japan city to shutter the plant until its safety can be assured.

Tokyo Electric warned that the nuclear plant shutdown could lead to power shortages in Japan. It has asked six other power companies to consider providing emergency electricity to prepare for rising demand from summer air conditioning, spokesman Hiroshi Itagaki said.

Katsumata insisted the hobbled plant posed no danger to the 93,500 people living nearby. “Everything is within acceptable legal levels,” he said.

But concerns over the damage, the extent of which was still being assessed, echoed across Japan, whose people depend on 55 reactors for about 30 percent of their electricity and have seen a string of mishaps and cover-ups in the industry.

“Japan has a dense population so the human damage would be major here. There would be many deaths,” Hideyuki Ban, a director of the civil group Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, told reporters. “I think that a quake-prone country should phase out its use of nuclear power.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency pressed Japan’s government to undertake an open investigation to see if there are lessons that can be applied elsewhere in the world.

“There will be no secrets,” Katsumata insisted.

“We will conduct an investigation from the ground up. But I think fundamentally we have confirmed that our safety measures worked,” he added. “It is hard to make everything go perfectly.”

Tokyo Electric, Japan’s largest power company, said the quake was stronger than planned for at the seven-reactor plant, where about 1,000 people work on a typical day. Only about 350 people were there Monday, which was a national holiday.

Masakazu Minamidate, the deputy superintendent of the plant, said the largest known quake in the area had been a magnitude 6.5, while the one that hit Monday was estimated at 6.8.

The company also revealed that the plant’s planners hadn’t known a fault line was just offshore.

New data from aftershocks following Monday’s offshore quake suggested the fault might run underneath the power plant itself, which was only 12 miles from the epicenter.

Minamidate said an onshore survey of fault lines had been completed, but not one offshore.

While it was unclear how close the fault line involved in the quake is to the plant, Meteorological Agency official Osamu Kamigaichi said it might stretch under the site.

Japan’s coast guard said it would launch a study of the ocean floor off Kashiwazaki starting Friday to better map fault lines in the area.

Opened briefly to a handful of reporters for the first time since the quake, damage was widely visible on the site, from cracked roads and buckled sidewalks to the charred outside wall of the transformer building that caught fire.

Minamidate stressed that no major structural problems were found. “We had some maintenance mistakes,” he said. “We must reflect on that.”

Anger was high at the company for the slowness in reporting damage at the plant, which generates 8.2 million kilowatts of electricity and has seen earlier accidents, such as a radioactive leak in a turbine room in 2001.

On Tuesday, the utility shocked the nation by releasing a list of dozens of problems triggered by the quake, after earlier reporting only the transformer fire and a small leak of radioactive water.

The new list included the transformer fire, broken pipes, water leaks and spills of radioactive waste. It also said the leak of radioactive water into the Sea of Japan was 50 percent bigger than announced Monday night.

“We made a mistake in calculating the amount that leaked into the ocean,” the company said in a statement. Spokesman Jun Oshima said the amount was still “one-billionth of Japan’s legal limit.”

Even that list had to be revised. Tokyo Electric said later Wednesday that about 400 barrels containing low-level nuclear waste had tipped over at a storage facility at the plant during the quake, revising an earlier figure of 100.

The impact from falling knocked the lids off about 40 barrels, spilling their contents onto the floor, spokesman Tsutomu Uehara told reporters in Tokyo. Uehara said no radiation had been detected outside the facility.

Clearly dismayed by the company’s handling of the emergency, Kashiwazaki Mayor Hiroshi Aida ordered operations at the plant halted indefinitely for “safety reasons.”

“I am worried,” he said. “It would be difficult to restart operations at this time. … The safety of the plant must be assured before it is reopened.”

The lengthy list of problems stoked new concerns about the safety of nuclear power in this quake-prone country.

Speaking in Malaysia, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said a thorough review was key and offered to have his Vienna-based agency pull together global experts.

“I would hope and I trust that Japan would be fully transparent in its investigation of that accident. The agency would be ready to join Japan through an international team in reviewing that accident and drawing the necessary lessons,” he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki urged Tokyo Electric to be more “honest” and “quick” in reporting problems, especially those that could affect the public.

Similar concerns were echoed across the country, which has 55 nuclear power plants.

Repercussions from the quake also were felt in the business world.

The temporary closure of auto parts maker Riken Corp.’s plant at Kashiwazaki forced Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. to scale back production.

Toyota, Japan’s No. 1 automaker and challenging General Motors Corp. for world leadership, will stop production lines at a dozen factories centered in central Aichi prefecture Thursday afternoon and all day Friday, Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said.

Several thousand Kashiwazaki residents remained in gymnasiums and civic centers Wednesday night because their homes had either been destroyed or damaged or because water service remained off.

Search teams pulled a 10th body from the rubble Wednesday night, and one man was listed as missing.

AP-ES-07-18-07 1619EDT

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