Follow the disappearing nukes

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., 19 January 2013 — This is a story without much significance beyond the usual cautionary tale about bureaucracies, which hardly needs retelling. But it is amusing nonetheless. So I present for your amusement and edification, the tale of the vanishing nuclear plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which watches over the world of all things nuke, including the ominous events in Iran and North Korea, from that European hell-hole known as Vienna, keeps an online database of the world’s operating nuclear plants, known as PRIS (“Power Reactor Information System).” Among the categories characterizing the nukes of the world are “in operation” and “long-term shutdown.”

For quite a long time, the “in operation” category has listed about 437 units. On January 16, an article appeared in the online version of the excellent magazine The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article by Mycle Schneider noted that the IAEA PRIS list summary claimed only 391 “nuclear power reactors in operation.” Mirabile dictu. Schneider noted that is “a number not seen since Chernobyl-year 1986, when 391 operating units were on the list.”

After some digging into the depths of PRIS, Schneider found that 46 Japanese units had been removed from the operating reactor list and shifted to the “long-term shutdown” category. The change in the IAEA data was made retroactive to January 1, 2013.

Two days later, voila. The IAEA list was back up to 437 and the Japanese units had been restored to the “in operation” list (although they haven’t operated for almost two years, following the disaster at Fukushima). The Japanese nukes had made a remarkable migration.

What gives?

Today, the IAEA issued a press release partially explaining the remarkable disappearance and reappearance of the Japanese nuclear units. The IAEA press release said the agency “asked its Japanese counterparts for additional clarification and justification for these changes. The counterparts yesterday advised the agency that the change resulted from a clerical error.”

The data in PRIS comes from the nations where the plants are located. It’s the responsibility of officials in those countries to make entries into the system. In the case of Japan, that’s the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES).

Reading between the lines and extrapolating a bit, here’s what likely happened. Following Fukushima, the Japanese government said it would shut down its ambitious nuclear power program, including keeping all the existing plants out of service. But on December 26, Japan got new leadership, under Shinzo Abe and the formerly-dominant, conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Abe quickly said he plans to restore the nuclear plants, following a process to assure they are safe to operate.

No doubt, somewhere in the bowels of JNES, a non-political civil servant didn’t get the message. Looking at the long-time outages, and following the criteria IAEA provides for those who post to the PRIS database, he or she decided it was appropriate to change the state of the Japanese units. No need to run the decision up the chain of command.

Oops!

In its press release, IAEA said it “is implementing a software upgrade that in future would prevent status changes being entered into the system without the agreement of the system administrators, and would require clear justification from the national counterparts.”