Inside the world’s biggest nuclear plant
By Kim Kyung-hoon
“Sleeping nuclear giants” – That was my first impression when I visited the world’s biggest nuclear power station, Kashiwazaki Kariwa power plant in Japan’s Niigata Prefecture.
With seven reactors which can produce a total of 8,212 megawatts of electricity, this power station is officially registered as the largest nuclear power station in the Guinness Book of Records. But the reality of the power station is much different than its reputation. Two of its reactors were shut down for a time after the 2007 earthquake and the remaining reactors were taken offline for safety checks and maintenance due to public concerns about the safety of nuclear energy in the quake-prone country after Fukushima’s nuclear disaster.
However its operator Tokyo Electronic Power Co (TEPCO) hopes to get this power plant operating because they are overwhelmed by the soaring cost of fuel as well as radiation cleanup costs and compensation payments to displaced residents. TEPCO invited the Reuters multimedia team into the nuclear power plant in order to show their upgraded safety practice.
The tour of the nuclear power plant started as we passed through the tightly secured main gate and we entered the nuclear station which has been the scene of countless battles against the invisible threat of radiation.
Here inside the reactor building each worker carries their own personal radiation gauge and full-body screenings are a common daily practice for them. Journalists are not exempt from this routine. We had to wear a helmet and goggles along with thick gloves and socks when we entered the No.6 reactor building.
A cardboard cartoon character of a rabbit held up a sign reading, “NUCLEAR RADIATION MANAGEMENT AREA BEGINS!” to alert everyone to the presence of nuclear radiation.
We had to walk through several thick shielded doors and a hatch-shaped entrance which resembled a facility in a lunar base in a sci-fi movie.
We finally reached the center of the reactor building, where it has a Reactor Pressure Vessel used for nuclear containment. In the facility, nuclear energy is invisible. However, the heated air in the room, the tightly sealed metal facilities and the rising number on the radiation gauge counter were enough for me to infer that I was quite close to the nuclear energy.
Before we entered this reactor building, TEPCO showed us what they had put in place as strengthened safety measures. The most representative was a tsunami prevention wall. Before the disaster in Fukushima, a height of 3.5 meters was considered adequate for a tsunami wall. Since the Fukushima nuclear plant was wrecked by the tsunami, TEPCO is constructing a wall which can withstand a tsunami of up to 15 meters high.
In addition, a new fresh water reservoir has been built, which will be used to cool down a boiling reactor in case of an emergency. Backup generators, fire trucks and water pumps have been reinforced.
But they still need to convince skeptical local residents before they start generating electricity. The deputy manager of the nuclear power plant said, “It is too premature to talk about when the reactor-restart will happen.”