Nuclear Ship Mutsu: Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale...

Japan’s senior citizens are the silver lining in the dark cloud cast by the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. It’s the same in other countries, too, where it has become a truism that only pensioners can afford to raise their voices against entrenched bureaucracies that are sending civilization hurtling toward a cliff. There has been a conspicuous majority of seniors at the anti-nuclear rallies in Japan, and strangely many of the living former prime ministers have converted to the anti-nuclear cause. Why do they never see the light while they are holding power?
There must be some members of the present government who wish they could reclassify all pensioners as state employees and thus subject them to the state secrets law. They could be forced to make a confessional “self-evaluation” every few years in order to re-qualify for funding, and that way they would fall into line just like journalists, academics and everyone else of working age who has been intimidated into hiding personal opinions for fear of seeming too “dangerous” to remain employable.
I probably shouldn’t give such ideas to the prime minister and his cabinet. It’s dangerous to feed them ideas that they might not recognize as sarcasm. At least for now, the senior citizens are free to say what they want. One fine example is the recollection of a former high-ranking police officer published by Nippon.com in April 2015.
In an article entitled “Japan’s Disastrous ‘Safety Myth’: Ignoring the Lessons of Minor Nuclear Incidents,” Sassa Atsuyuki related the tale of the 1974 reactor accident on the maiden voyage of Japan’s experimental nuclear cargo ship, the Mutsu. It is definitely one of the lesser-known fiascoes on Japan’s long list of nuclear mishaps, but it is worth relating for what it reveals about the early signs of trouble in Japan’s nuclear establishment.
There is very little information in English about the Mutsu incident on the Internet. One technical, factual review can be found here, but it leaves out the foibles and the “human angle” of the story—the very elements of it that reveal what an ill-advised venture the nuclear scheme was right from the beginning.
Mr. Sassa covers some familiar aspects of the Fukushima catastrophe and troubles with the Monju reactor, so the story of the Mutsu got somewhat buried in the middle of the article. It didn’t get much attention when the article appeared, so I’ve excerpted it here so it stands alone.
Although Mr. Sassa’s recounting is quite critical of the way the incident was handled, he implies that the fishermen’s claims were emotional and not founded on scientific evidence. It may be true that normal operations would not have harmed the fishery, but the locals were right to be worried about accidents and the expansion of the nuclear adventure into dangerous projects like power plants and reprocessing facilities. In 1985, there was indeed a serious environmental release of radiation from a nuclear vessel near Japan’s shores—on a Soviet submarine stationed in Chazhma Bay, near Vladivostok. A similar accident in a Japanese fishing village would have done real harm and reputational harm to the residents, so their reasons for being opposed were rational.
In any case, regardless of this minor criticism, Mr. Sassa’s recollection of the events is damning enough:

Sassa Atsuyuki, April 30, 2015

Writer Profile:
First director general of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office (1986–89). Born in Tokyo in 1930. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo, and joined the National Rural Police (now the National Police Agency). While at the NPA, was responsible for handling the Yasuda Hall incident and the Asama-Sansō incident. Has also worked for the Defense Agency and headed the Defense Facilities Administration Agency.

… The first time it became clear that the Japanese government and nuclear industry were not prepared to meet a crisis was in 1974 during the failed test voyage of the Mutsu nuclear ship. At the time I was security division chief at the National Police Agency, so I was able to observe all of the turmoil from behind the scenes.

Sticky Rice Farce

Locals mounted extraordinary opposition when the nuclear ship was to set out from its home port of Ōminato in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture. They protested vigorously that pollution from the ship would harm rich scallop fishing grounds in the area, although there was no scientific evidence to back this claim. The lively demonstration developed a festive atmosphere, with the fishermen all drinking to the point where virtually all of the bottles of sake in the local liquor shops were sold out. Then, fortified by alcohol, the fishermen attached themselves to the Mutsu anchor with rope and lined up their boats in front of the bow of the vessel so that it could not leave port.
As a typhoon approached, the Mutsu took the opportunity to break through a gap in the blockade. Once in the open sea, testers began a controlled nuclear reaction. The Japan Nuclear Ship Development Agency, which was leading the experiment, and the Science and Technology Agency were brimming with self-confidence. However, a design flaw in the radiation shielding for the reactor resulted in a minor leak. Early failures are standard in the world of technological development, and if the testers had adopted some common-sense countermeasures, they could have dealt with the problem. In this case, all that was needed was to cover the radiation leak with lead plating. But the experimenters on the Mutsu had assumed there would be no technical problems, and they were not prepared for anything going wrong.
As the Mutsu wandered in the ocean, in want of other options, the experimenters tried to plug the leak using borates, to absorb the neutrons, mixed with sticky rice intended for the evening meal! At first they tried throwing it, as nobody wanted to approach the problem area. As might be expected, this did not work well, so low-ranking researchers were selected to block the leak by hand. It is said that they performed the ceremony of drinking farewell cups of water in case they did not survive. Considering that these were people involved in nuclear power development, it was a pathetic state of affairs.

Reactor room of nuclear ship Mutsu

The Telephone That Did Not Ring

Obviously the planners had shown a lack of foresight in failing to consider worst-case scenarios. But this was not the only problem. The overconfident belief that accidents were impossible also meant that the Mutsu was full of media representatives, who gave detailed accounts of the farcical events onboard, turning the affair into a completely unnecessary circus.
When the radiation leak occurred, I was in the office of Moriyama Kinji, then director general of the STA. The protests had been so fierce that the Maritime Safety Agency was unable to deal with them, and the ministers in charge had decided to dispatch Aomori Prefecture riot police and a Tōhoku chemical emergency team and to treat events as a police matter. That was why I was in Moriyama’s office representing the National Public Safety Commission.
There were around 10 telephones on his desk, including one that was red. He said to me, “Sassa, do you know what this phone is for?” “I don’t know,” I replied. “Is it to call the fire service or something like that?” “No,” he said. “This connects directly to the captain of the Mutsu. If there are any problems, the first report will come to me. And then we can think about how to handle whatever it is.” When I asked him later what happened with the direct line, he told me that it never rang. It was pathetic. The first reports of the accident came from the television news, before either the STA , the supervisory body, or the police knew anything about it.

Buying Silence

The Mutsu was refused reentry into Ōminato port, the site of the original demonstrations. As other ports understandably followed suit, the ship continued to drift in the sea, sparking unrest among dock workers and fishermen wherever it went. As security division chief, I remember being suddenly rushed off my feet because I had to dispatch a police unit each time this happened.
It was a disgraceful situation in which all the fishing cooperatives were demanding compensation. Kanemaru Shin, chair of the LDP’s General Council, dealt with it through blatant pork-barrel politics, throwing money at the fishing industry in an attempt to silence it. But there was no end to the demands from fishery representatives; they wanted the Mutsu to be scrapped and all related port facilities, including the designated quay, to be destroyed and returned to how they were before.
Despite this great commotion, however, the government’s nuclear power administrators made no attempts to step up crisis management, such as laying in specially equipped vehicles for emergencies or conducting general checks for defects at all nuclear facilities. The mist of the safety myth descended once again, obscuring any possibility of an accident. That was the outcome of the Mutsu episode.

People Not Responsible?

The STA continued to oversee the development of nuclear power, but it was incapable of handling serious incidents (jiken) and accidents (jiko) at nuclear facilities. For one thing, it had no designated teams to do so. And, given the nature of the agency, it had no concept of “incidents” or “accidents.”
This was vividly apparent after the December 1995 fire at the Monju fast-breeder reactor, caused by a leak of molten sodium. At a press conference, a councillor of the STA sparked an uproar when he talked about the jishō (“occurrence” or “phenomenon”) at Monju. “What do you mean, ‘occurrence’?” one reporter pressed. “You should call it an ‘incident’ or an ‘accident.’” But the councillor battled gamely on: “This is classed as an occurrence under the STA’s rules. An accident that causes injury or death is an incident, and if a machine had broken down or been destroyed by fire, that would have been an accident. But a sodium leak is considered to be an occurrence and not an incident or accident.”

excerpted from:
Sassa Atsuyuki, April 30, 2015

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