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Chapter 0: Playing with Electricity

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東京都 渋谷区 電力館
Electric Energy Museum, Shibuya, Tokyo
Sun 17 Sep 2000 13:07

I decided to start my nuclear adventures with a preliminary excursion to Shibuya, the commuter hub I pass through twice daily, where the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) runs the 電力館 (Denryokukan), usually translated Electric Energy Museum although Exhibit would be more like it. A bizarre electrified Disneyland with displays like the "Electric Forest" and the ever-popular "Demand Side Management Theater", Lonely Planet's summary "seven floors of advertising for TEPCO" is quite accurate. I wouldn't have come back for a second visit if not for the contents of floor 6, which is devoted to nuclear energy, and since entrance is free...

As I stepped out of the elevator on the 7th floor, a chirpy-voiced pretty young thing recited in exquisite keigo that a free 3-D movie would be starting soon on the 8th floor, so I decided to make a detour. I was expecting a 3-D tour of a power plant or the life of a uranium atom or something, and the first 15 minutes were indeed a 2-D cartoon on how to conserve energy, but then the actual movie started -- and wow! It was very 3-D, limited only by the relatively small screen and motionless seats, but the movie itself was an absolutely stunning animated feature called 銀河鉄道999 (Galaxy Express 999). The movie packed all the twists and turns of a 2-hour movie into 15 minutes, with our approximately 10-year-old protagonist taking a steam locomotive in the company of a wispy blonde in a fur hat. The locomotive flies out into space, where he meets a waitress named "Kurea" who is made of transparent crystal, walks around naked and weeps about being lonely. Then there's a laser-gun firefight, the train goes out of control and heads straight into an asteroid field, the blonde turns out to be an evil robot in disguise and then the boy wakes up and realizes that it was all a dream... or was it? Plotline and total lack of any relation to TEPCO aside, the computer-generated graphics were simply jaw-dropping, so should you run into it someplace go check it out.

That out of the way, it was time to get to work. The 6th floor contains a 1/3 scale model of a reactor core, a 1/35th model of an entire facility, and lots more cheerful videotapes featuring animated characters like Cosmos-kun, Pluto-kun (as in -nium) and TEPCO's generic mascot Denko-chan, all explaining why nuclear power is good for you. But there was some actual information buried in the pastel plastic too. According to a large map and some brochures I scavenged, TEPCO runs three nuclear facilities with a total of 17 reactors currently operational and 4 more under construction. The active ones are:

Name: Fukushima Nuclear Power Generation Facility 1
Location: Oono, Fukushima-ken
Operator: TEPCO
Type: BWR
Size: 6 reactors operational, 2 under construction, producing 4696 MW total

Name: Fukushima Nuclear Power Generation Facility 2
Location: Tomioka, Fukushima-ken
Operator: TEPCO
Type: BWR
Size: 4 reactors operational, producing 4400 MW total

Name: Kashiwazakikariwa Nuclear Power Generation Facility
Location: Kashiwazaki, Niigata-ken
Operator: TEPCO
Type: BWR
Size:7 reactors operational, producing 8215 MW total

A fourth facility is under construction at a place called 東通 in Aomori-ken, whose proper pronounciation I will not even attempt to guess at. All the reactors listed above are plain-vanilla, boring and old but tried, true and tested Boiling Water Reactors (BWR), which are the most common type of reactor in Japan and the entire world.

TEPCO also has an uranium enrichment plant and radioactive waste disposal center operating in Rokkashomura (六ヶ所村), Aomori-ken, and a well-greased hand in the ongoing construction of the so-far spectacularly unsuccessful Monju (もんじゅ) fast breeder reactor in Fukui-ken. FBRs are supposed to turn depleted uranium back into usable reactor fuel while generating energy in the process, ie. a free lunch for all parties involved, but TANSTAAFL: Monju is putting out a measly 280 MW and at last check development and construction costs were at $5 billion and mounting. Unfortunately, Fukui-ken is (for the moment) in entirely the wrong direction, so I'll save it for later -- but all the other facilities listed above I do intend to visit.

And there's more! Northern Japan has three other major reactor complexes: one at Tokaimura (東海村), the birthplace of Japan's nuclear industry and the mildly infamous site of Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident (which wasn't in a reactor though, but at a waste processing facility run by the secretive JCO Corporation); the second at Onagawa (女川), Miyagi-ken, which I've actually already briefly visited during J2J's HZM on my way back from Kinkazan, and the third at Tomari-mura (泊村), on the west coast of Hokkaido.

Name: Tokai Nuclear Power Generation Facility
Location: Tokai-mura, Ibaraki-ken
Operator: Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPCO)
Type: BWR
Size: 1 reactor operational, producing 1080 MW, 1 shut down

Name: Onagawa Nuclear Power Generation Facility
Location: Onagawa, Miyagi-ken
Operator: Touhoku Electric Power Company
Type: BWR
Size:2 reactors operational, producing ??

Name: Tomari Nuclear Power Generation Facility
Location: Tomari-mura, Hokkaido
Operator: Hokkaido Electric Power Company
Type: PWR
Size:2 reactors operational, producing ??

As I'm sure you noticed (right?), the Tomari facility is a little odd in that both its reactors are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR), the only ones on this particular trip. There are plenty more down in the south, as well as a few truly odd animals like the aforementioned Monju FBR and the world's only LWCHWR, an acronymic monster which stands for Light Water Cooled Heavy Water Reactor. Later, later...

Are there yet more? According to the International Nuclear Safety Center's extensive database, there are also over a dozen research and prototype reactors in the greater Tokyo area alone (Kawasaki, Yokosuka, even Narita!), but I decided not to bother with them, as they are too inconspicuous to be of interest and information about them is difficult to track down. I've lived next to one for the past few years (yes, the Dept. of Theoretical Physics at the Helsinki U. of Tech has its own non-theoretical research reactor in Otaniemi) and I'm still not even quite sure which building it is in.

You might expect that nuclear reactors are a bit hush-hush and that the companies running them would keep a pretty low profile. Far from it: due to widespread fears about nuclear safety, TEPCO goes out of its way to encourage visits. Each of its three main facilities listed above has a visitor center with manicured lawns and extensive exhibits, and I even picked up a booklet detailing train connections and driving directions to each site. Not that they're really needed, as all 5 complexes are built right on the coast and are so massive that their anti-tsunami fortifications are visible in my 1:250000 atlas!

Still there? I'm impressed. Don't worry, all this nuclear stuff is just a good excuse for heading way out into the boondocks. Now the preliminaries are over, and we can heed the advice of TEPCO's English welcome brochure: "Let's make friends with electricity!"

Chapter 1: Mo' Rap Land >>