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Japan's Struggles Continue

Earthquake Recovery: Nuclear crisis continues as shortages of electronic materials loom

by Britt E. Erickson, Jeff Johnson, and Jean-François Tremblay
March 28, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 13

Credit: STR/AFP/Gettyimages/Newscom
Workers in radiation protection suits prepare for the decontamination of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant workers who were exposed to high levels of radiation.
Credit: STR/AFP/Gettyimages/Newscom
Workers in radiation protection suits prepare for the decontamination of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant workers who were exposed to high levels of radiation.

Japan experienced progress and setbacks this week in its continuing struggle to recover from the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Frontline workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station again risked their lives to tame damaged reactors. Meanwhile, chemical companies key to the global electronics industry worked to restart damaged plants and other facilities.

The situation at the nuclear power plant, some 150 miles north of Tokyo, remained extremely worrisome. Japanese government officials said that radioactive materials escaping from the plant had contaminated drinking water and agricultural products grown in the area.

As a result, the government issued warnings that infants as far away as the Tokyo area should not drink tap water because of contamination with radioactive iodine (I-131). That warning followed earlier government restrictions on produce and raw milk from the vicinity of the power plant. Widespread shortages of food and bottled water have been reported, including in Tokyo.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced on March 22 that it would screen all food shipments from affected areas in Japan. The agency noted, however, that less than 4% of all U.S. food imports come from Japan. The agency emphasized that “there is currently no risk to the U.S. food supply.”

Tokyo Electric Power, which owns the Fukushima nuclear plant, reported that three workers were exposed to high levels of radioactivity on March 24 when laying electrical cable to restore power. Two of the workers were hospitalized with radiation burns on their legs.

In light of the disaster, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this week that a task force would conduct a safety review of U.S. reactors, 23 of which are built from the same design as those at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Meanwhile, the global electronics industry reported that it is facing serious shortages of key materials because of supply chain interruptions caused by the quake and tsunami. Production of those materials, many made by Japanese chemical companies, has slowed or halted in some cases. Of most concern is a likely shortage of bismaleimide triazine resin, which is used as an insulating material in a wide range of printed circuit boards and integrated-circuit substrates.

Mitsubishi Gas Chemical is the world’s largest producer of bismaleimide triazine, and its facilities in Fukushima prefecture have been knocked out of operation altogether. The company says it expects to resume some production next month. The MGC facilities, according to Barclays Capital Asia in Hong Kong, make about half of the world’s supply of the material.

Also out of commission are two facilities that together represent one-fourth of the world’s capacity for silicon wafers, the base material for semiconductor fabrication. Shin-Etsu Chemical says it doesn’t know when it will be able to restart its Shirakawa facility in Fukushima prefecture, a giant plant that produces about 20% of the world’s wafers. Missouri-based MEMC has suspended work until further notice at its Utsunomiya plant 60 miles north of Tokyo.

Production of liquid-crystal displays is likely to be disrupted as well, according to the Taipei-based market research firm DisplaySearch. In a report, the firm observes that three Japanese companies—Mitsui Chemicals, Kanto Denka Kogyo, and Central Glass—account for roughly 30% of the world’s output of nitrogen trifluoride, a cleaning gas used in display manufacturing. Japanese production of the gas, which was already in tight supply before the quake, could be disrupted by irregular electricity output in Japan and by damage to a Kanto Denka plant, according to DisplaySearch.

DisplaySearch also notes that indium tin oxide, a transparent conductor used in liquid-crystal displays, is made mostly in Japan. The world’s largest producer, JX Nikko, has stopped production at a plant located 50 miles from the troubled Fukushima nuclear reactors, DisplaySearch says.


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