Stricken Japan reactor marks 40th anniversary

OSAKA, March 26, 2011 (AFP) - The Japanese operator of a stricken Fukushima nuclear plant Saturday marked 40 years since the first reactor started commercial operations with a boast of safety "unthinkable elsewhere".

"It is extremely disappointing to mark the 40th anniversary this way," Sakae Muto, vice-president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), told a news conference. "And we feel very sorry."

The 9.0-magnitude quake and huge tsunami on March 11 paralysed the cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi (No.1) plant 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo, leaving it on the brink of a catastrophic meltdown.

Emergency workers have sprayed huge amounts of water on the reactors -- including the 460,000-watt number one reactor -- to prevent the fuel rods becoming exposed and spewing out dangerous amounts of radiation.

US giant General Electric started construction of what was TEPCO's first nuclear reactor in September 1967. It began commercial operations on March 26, 1971.

Japan began nuclear power generation in 1963 at an experimental reactor in Tokai on the same coast, some 120 kilometres northeast of Tokyo. Now it has 55 nuclear reactors, accounting for 30 percent of electric power generation.

The Fukushima plant's commercial launch was celebrated as a milestone in Japan's drive into the age of nuclear energy.

"What is most important at a nuclear power plant is how safely nuclear energy is used," a narrator said in a public relations video. "Therefore, detailed care is paid to its safety in a way unthinkable elsewhere."

The 1977 Japanese-language video, which was entitled "The Nuclear Power of Fukushima" and updated in 1985, hailed the plant as a "model of technological innovation in nuclear power generation".

The film, available online at www.kagakueizo.org/2011/01/post-332.html, documents the construction of the plant on rocky foundations by the Pacific.

It shows work on a breakwater with 10,000 concrete blocks to protect the plant's port from "raging waves from the Pacific". But it was no match for the 14-metre (46-foot) tsunami and the plant is unlikely ever to be used again.

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