Issue Date: March 21, 2011
Japan Fights For Its Rising Sun
As Japan struggled this week in the aftermath of the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the impact on its substantial chemical enterprise also began to emerge through various communiqués with C&EN’s network of Japanese contacts. Given that Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, there is little doubt among any of these sources that the country will fully restore its engines of productivity, but the repair bill promises to be enormous.
The grim backdrop to Japan’s historic natural disaster that has claimed many thousands of lives continues to be the nightmare situation of a potential meltdown at a nuclear power plant near Sendai. The situation has developed beyond the guidance available from the nuclear power industry’s accident history, and there is little consensus among experts as to what will happen if one or more of the reactor complexes descends into an uncontrolled burn and nuclear chain reaction.
For many sectors of the chemical enterprise, C&EN has learned, the scale of damage varies even in hard-hit areas. At Tohoku University, which has five campuses in the northern city of Sendai, chemistry professors Masahiro Terada and Hiromi Tobita say their seventh- and eighth-floor laboratories on the Aobayama campus were devastated by the earthquake. Fume hoods, shelving, equipment, and gas cylinders all fell down despite being secured to walls or floors, they say.
The university is closed until further notice. Tobita adds that it is difficult to get basic supplies such as water, food, and gasoline in the city.
Laboratories at institutions in the city of Fukushima, about 50 miles south of Sendai, however, were not significantly damaged by the earthquake, faculty members say. But the city’s water supply remains cut off, and Fukushima Medical University chemistry professor Nobukazu Taniguchi says his university cannot get key supplies such as liquid helium, which is required for maintaining NMR spectrometers.
The University of Tokyo is still assessing damage to its facilities, its public relations group tells C&EN. Tokyo is affected by rolling electricity blackouts, and the university has asked campus personnel to limit electricity use and to stop performing experiments that generate hazardous liquids, according to a statement on its website.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency says in a statement on its website that its R&D sites sustained some damage to facilities and equipment. JAEA’s Tokai site, about 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, includes the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex, where neutron-scattering experiments are done. The earthquake moved the target used to produce neutrons by about 30 cm, say experts in the U.S. who are familiar with the situation. They say it will likely be several months before experiments come back on-line.
At the Photon Factory, a synchrotron radiation facility located about 30 miles north of Tokyo in Tsukuba, a magnet fell out of the accelerator. “We expect at least several months before we can restart the user program,” reads a statement on the facility’s website.
Facilities at Japan’s research institute RIKEN generally suffered no serious damage from the earthquake, says spokesman Yasuaki Yutani. However, at C&EN’s press time on March 17, he had no information on the fate of RIKEN’s photonics research laboratories in Sendai, the city most affected by the tsunami.
Buildings at the Tohoku campus of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology (AIST) survived the earthquake, but laboratories and instruments might be damaged, says spokesman Masaki Shimonura. Shimonura adds that communication between AIST sites has been difficult because of power, telephone, and e-mail problems. AIST Tohoku focuses on chemical processing technologies. AIST has shut down experiments at its Tsukuba headquarters pending infrastructure and safety assessments.
At C&EN’s press time, none of the institutions that were contacted reported significant injuries or fatalities. And the Chemical Society of Japan has received no reports of casualties among society members, says Executive Director Nobuyuki Kawashima. The society has canceled its annual meeting, scheduled for March 26–29 at Kanagawa University, in Yokohama.
Assessments of Japan’s chemical and high-technology industries indicate limited damage, a variety of sources tell C&EN. Some production outages are indefinite, however, and are accompanied by severe supply chain disruptions that are likely to continue in the months ahead. Power outages, including rolling blackouts, as well as damage to transportation infrastructure and ports, compound the situation. Still, no chemical company has reported loss of life at any facility.
Japan’s largest chemical company, Mitsubishi Chemical, says it has no power at its ethylene complex in Kashima, northeast of Tokyo. It’s “next to impossible” to ship in and out of the complex, Mitsubishi says in a statement, because berths and roads are damaged. “Restoration of capabilities will take quite some time,” the company says.
Although many chemical complexes in Japan can generate their own power, most plants in Kashima, an important industrial area, depend on the grid, a Mitsui Chemicals spokeswoman tells C&EN. Because of both water damage and uncertain power supply, Mitsui’s polyurethane plant in Kashima will remain closed indefinitely, the company says. But Mitsui and other chemical producers have restarted many of their plants east of Tokyo in Chiba prefecture, another important base for chemical production.
One bright spot for the Japanese petrochemical industry is that it will not lack critical naphtha feedstock, predicts Masaru Kani, executive consultant at the market research firm Mitsubishi Chemical Techno-Research. Although some naphtha-producing refineries in Japan have stopped operation, stocks of the material are ample.
In fact, Japan’s petrochemical industry will return to normal production within about six months, forecasts the chemical consultancy Chemical Market Associates Inc. But “it can take up to a few years for all the infrastructure—logistics and power—to come back to normalcy,” the firm adds.
The global electronics industry will likely soon feel the impact of the Japanese quake. Shin-Etsu Chemical, the world’s largest producer of silicon wafers, has stopped operating its main facility north of Tokyo in Shirakawa until further notice, but the firm says it will try to shift production to other sites. Three Shirakawa plant workers were briefly hospitalized after the quake, the company says.
Japan produces 60% of the world’s silicon wafers, according to electronics market research firm iSuppli. Any disruption in Japanese wafer shipments will broadly affect the electronics industry once global inventories—two weeks’ worth of supply—are depleted, the firm says.
Meanwhile, Hitachi Chemical says the earthquake and tsunami damaged a facility where the firm produces carbon products and automotive parts in Fukushima prefecture. The company states that it has been unable to assess the damage because the plant is in an exclusion zone close to the damaged Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) nuclear reactors.
Indeed, Japan’s electricity sector is reeling from a cascade of disasters driven by the earthquake and tsunami. The country generates 29% of its electricity from its 55 nuclear power reactors. Around one-fifth of those reactors were immediately shut down after the earthquake, however, and Japanese utilities began a series of rolling blackouts to conserve electricity.
Worldwide attention has focused on six nuclear reactors at TEPCO’s heavily damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station some 150 miles north of Tokyo. As of C&EN’s press time, company and government officials were reportedly struggling to keep cool four reactors—some of which may be in partial meltdown or leaking radioactive fuel from damaged containment vessels—plus spent uranium fuel rods in pool storage areas.
The earthquake’s epicenter was 80 miles offshore from the Fukushima reactor complex. TEPCO says it immediately shut down the three reactors that were operating at the time of the quake. As the complex lost grid power, the company quickly turned to diesel power to pump in water and cool the reactor cores that had been operating in order to avoid core meltdowns. When the tsunami knocked out the diesel-powered pumps, TEPCO workers reportedly switched to manual efforts to pump seawater into the containment vessels.
Heat and the addition of seawater raised pressure inside the reactors’ primary containment vessels, requiring venting, numerous nuclear experts explained to the media last week. The vented gases contained explosive hydrogen formed through the reaction of the fuel rods’ zirconium cladding and steam; the hydrogen ignited in several of the units, damaging containment buildings.
The TEPCO reactors are a General Electric Mark 1 design that store spent fuel in elevated concrete pools adjacent to the primary reactor containment vessels. At least two of these pools are now leaking, says U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, who testified before two congressional committees last week. One pool is likely to be empty of water, he says, which could lead to a spent-fuel fire and release of large amounts of radioactivity. He also says three of the facility’s six reactor cores are damaged.
Radioactive releases are increasing, making it “very difficult” for emergency workers to get near the reactors without experiencing “lethal doses of radioactivity in a very short period of time,” Jaczko told the committees. NRC recommended an evacuation of U.S. residents within 50 miles of the power plant, four times the distance recommended by Japan’s government. Because of the distance between the U.S. and Japan, he says, the U.S. mainland is not threatened by drifting radioactivity.
The American Chemical Society expressed sorrow for the tragedy in a letter to Kawashima from society Executive Director and CEO Madeleine Jacobs.
“Like everyone at the American Chemical Society, I am shocked and heartbroken by the horrible tragedy Japan is experiencing today,” Jacobs wrote. “Once again, we have been forced to witness and absorb the horror of a tsunami and the unconceivable destruction and loss of life it has left in its path. Prayers for you, the members of the Chemical Society of Japan, and for each of those who have had family or friends affected by the tragedy go out from everyone at the American Chemical Society.”
More than 4,000 chemists in Japan are members of ACS.
Earthquake damage to a corridor, laboratories, and a seminar room is shown in photos from Tohoku University’s chemistry department; the university reported no injuries.
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