Undaunted by the lack of demand for nuclear reactor systems in its home country, Hitachi is now seeking to sell the systems abroad. In the UK the company aims to do this through the acquisition of Horizon Nuclear Power, a joint venture between E.On and RWE. Those companies announced in late March 2012 that they had abandonned nuclear new-build plans in the UK, citing a "combination of these strategic factors, together with the significant ongoing costs" and had put the business up for sale. Hitachi now plans to build new reactors in Wylfa (on Anglesey) and Oldbury (near Bristol).
The UK is seen as a target ripe for new nuclear development because of a coalition Government which portrays nuclear as a "low-carbon" option. David Cameron hailed Hitachi's announcement, saying "I warmly welcome Hitachi as a major new player in the UK energy sector" and talking of some 12,000 construction jobs which might be created short-term.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster has left nearly 1000 square kilometres - an area the size of Manhattan - uninhabitable because of high radiation levels. The disaster has meant that there is now a moratorium on the building of new nuclear reactors in Japan. One of the reactor systems, whose failure has caused such widespread contamination, was built by the Japanese company Hitachi.
The nuclear reactors proposed for Wylfa and Oldbury are of the same type used at Fukushima. This is a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), based on a design by General Electric and available from a number of companies, including General Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi. The technology involves a reactor core which boils water, which turns to steam that is used to drive a turbine to make electricity. The same technology was used by reactors at both Chernobyl and Fukushima.
In March 2011 a Japanese whistle-blower revealed that there had been a cover-up of a manufacturing defect in the containment vessel for the Fukushima No. 4 reactor, made by Hitachi. The engineer, Mitsuhiko Tanaka, worked for Hitachi and was asked in 1974 to conceal a dent in the vessel caused by an error during the production process at the Babock-Hitachi foundry in Kure City. Tanaka devised a method to repair the damage, saving the company billions of yen in re-engineering costs but leaving the safety of the vessel potentially compromised.
He tried to tell the Japanese Trade Minstry about the cover-up in 1988 but officials refused to investigate and Hitachi denied the accusations. Tanaka told Bloomberg News last year "They said, if Hitachi says they didn’t do it, then there’s no problem. Companies don’t always tell the truth."
The question of waste
Forever hovering over the nuclear debate is the question of disposal of radioactive waste. Some seventy years after the first reactor was built, there is still no satisfactory solution for the disposal of the highly-radioactive waste materials produced. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estimates that the UK has produced some 5 million tonnes of nuclear waste and says in a 2010 report "Facilities for disposing of HLW [High Level Waste], ILW [Intermediate Level Waste] and LLW [Low Level Waste] unsuitable for near-surface disposal have yet to be developed – these wastes are currently stored."
by Marcus Williamson
31 October 2012
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