May 30, 2013

On Thursday, May 23, at 11:55 am, the particle accelerator facility at Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, experienced an incident that resulted in a minor radioactive incident. The Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) was directing a high-energy proton beam at a sample of gold when the beam intensity suddenly increased. A small portion of the gold evaporated and several “exotic” isotopes were scattered inside the “controlled area” of the Hadron Building at the J-PARC facility. When controlled area radiation monitors detected the increased radiation, alarms sounded and the beam was automatically terminated. Radiation levels dropped as soon as the shutdown occurred. Soon, the beam was re-started and ran for about another hour. On Friday, facility staff found some short-lived isotopes in a concentration of about 30 Becquerels per square centimeter in the Hadron Building hallway, which is outside the controlled area. (1) This is when the Nuclear Regulatory Authority in Tokyo and the local prefectural government were alerted to an unusual event per existing regulations. Japan Atomic Energy Agency, who runs the facility jointly with Japan’s High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), says radiation monitors at the facility property boundary “did not show any meaningful increase”. Also, none of Ibaraki Prefecture’s seven radiation monitors registered any off-site release.

When the news of the incident hit the Press, all hell broke loose. The entire spectrum of the Japanese news media began treating the J-PARC incident as if it were another Fukushima accident. Even the usually nuclear-neutral The Japan News said “The case thus seems to illustrate a deterioration in the safety culture developed by the nation’s nuclear industry, according to experts.” (2) Local Ibaraki officials and Tokyo politicians also jumped on the antinuclear bandwagon. Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura said, “They lacked a sense of urgency and crisis when the public is harboring strong feelings of distrust toward nuclear power.” Shunichi Matsumotoof Ibaraki’s nuclear safety group said, “The prefecture is taking the incident seriously. People living nearby are feeling very anxious about the external radiation leak and the internal exposure (of the researchers).” (3) Akihiko Kawasaki, of the Tokai municipal government, said he was concerned about JAEA’s lax attitude toward the handling of nuclear substances and demanded the agency confirm the safety of the environment around the facility. (4) The stream of outcry over this incident went on and on.

The problem is this – J-PARC is not a nuclear power facility. It is not a part of the so-called “nuclear industry”, or what the Japanese Press calls the “nuclear village”. It is a particle accelerator facility running physics experiments on the fundamental structure of matter.

A particle accelerator takes charged sub-atomic particles (protons, in this case) and accelerates them to nearly the speed of light using powerful magnetic technology. Particle accelerators are huge structures. The main delta-shaped “ring” at J-PARC is 1.6 kilometers in diameter and buried underground. (5) The ring is where the protons get speeded up to nearly light speed. The resulting high energy proton beam is precisely aimed at a “target” of a specific element (in this case gold) resulting in collision between the protons and the target’s atoms. The collisions break some of the target atoms into their subatomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons), and subsequently the subatomic particles are broken into their “elementary particles”. Elementary particles are the building blocks of all matter and are defined as having no substructure. Break them up and all you have is radiation and energy. Elementary particles include quarks, leptons, bosons, baryons, mesons and neutrinos. (6) The intent of such research is to study the fundamental structure of matter – the “stuff” everything in the universe is made of. There is no fissioning, no production of electricity, in fact nothing that remotely resembles anything that has to do with nuclear energy. In fact, applying the title “nuclear” to accelerators is a stretch. It’s worse than comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to onions!

These facilities are regulated by law in each country they exist in. There are currently 22 accelerators in Japan, most of which are relatively small (compared to J-PARC) and located at universities. The regulatory bodies in each country are, by default, the same ones who regulate nuclear power plants, but the two technologies are as different as night and day. One reason accelerators are  regulated by the same bodies as nuke plants is because they can produce small levels of radiation as a by-product of the proton collisions with the target nuclei and/or transmutations of trace contaminants (such as Sodium) into radioactive isotopes.

Since joint-operator JAEA has the word “Atomic” in its name, and “atomic” is synonymous with the term “nuclear” to the Press and most politicians, the incorrect assumption of J-PARC being part of the nuclear industry goes literally unquestioned. On the other hand, it seems the Press and the politicians conveniently avoid KEK’s joint ownership of J-PARC because it doesn’t have the words “atomic” or “nuclear” in its title. Plus, KEK hasn’t even the most distant connection to anything associated with nuclear power plants.

J-PARC has had no measurable release to the environment, but because there was a release outside the controlled area and into another part of the Hadron Building, the possibility of an atmospheric release gives the Press license to treat the J-PARC incident as serious, especially since its associated with a group whose title has the word “atomic” in it. The possibility of a miniscule release at J-PARC is thusly associated with the actuality of a massive release that happened at F. Daiichi by the Press and politicians of Japan. They want everyone to believe it is Fukushima all over again.

The problem goes even deeper. It’s bad enough that Japan’s Press and many politicians would not know a neutron from a ping-pong ball. But, their collective ignorance of the massive abyss between nuclear energy and particle physics research is reprehensible. The degree of misunderstanding involved in this situation is perhaps best exemplified by the confused statement of Akihiko Kawasaki from the Tokai municipal government. He said he was concerned about JAEA’s lax attitude toward the handling of nuclear substances and demanded the agency confirm the safety of the environment around the facility. When J-PARC was not a nuclear plant, his response was, “That’s why we want them to be more sensitive and show local residents that they can make good use of their new technologies [in various fields].”

Huh? What does that have to do with anything? Perhaps he meant that because there might have been a miniscule, undetectable release of radiation into the environment, J-PARC should take this sort of thing seriously. Well, they do! J-PARC has publically apologized and said they will do whatever is necessary to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

The bottom lines are many. All of the staff in the Hadron Building has been given whole body counts, with 33 of 55 showing detectable internal exposure. The contamination inside the building was contained and no longer a source of environmental release before the Press posted the first convoluted, fear-predicated news report. J-PARC has made a public apology. No member of the public is at risk. The 33 members of the J-PARC staff who have been found to have inhaled some radioactive isotopes will not be harmed either. In fact, the highest measured exposure is equal to the region’s natural background radiation level! J-PARC is not completely innocent, however. They made the mistake of not appreciating the degree of radiophobia in Japan and the Japanese Press’ unquenchable thirst for radiation-related scare-mongering. They can take control of the situation and ease the intensity of the issue by educating the Press on the massive differences between nukes and accelerators. While they are at it, they should educate the national and local politicians, too. But, up to this point J-PARC seems content to let the opportunity pass.

References: (several of which were shared by Australian colleague Luke Weston)

1. Accident of J-PARC Hadron Experimental Facility; J-PARC press release; May 25, 2013.

2. Japan in Depth / Researchers downplayed radiation / Leak signals lax N-safety culture; The Japan News (Yomiuri Shimbun); 5/27/13.

3.  Local govts seek answers after N-lab mishap; The Japan News; 5/27/13.

4. J-PARC leak signals poor sense of crisis; The Japan Times; 5/27/2013.

5. Sugai, Isao; Present Status of HBC Stripper Foil Development [at J-PARC]; Seminar for the High Energy Research Organization of Japan; 11/11/2009.

6. Elementary Particles; “Particle Adventure”; University of Oregon.

7. Ikeda, Yujiro; J-PARC Status; Japan Atomic Energy Agency; 1/9/2013.