TOKYO -- Operators and repairmen turn switches hundreds of times every day at the nuclear reactors that produce one-quarter of the electricity to keep Japan's factories working and its high-tech society humming. On a gray afternoon Tuesday in Futaba, 50 miles north of Tokyo, a repairman's ill-placed tool got bumped into one unintended switch at the Fukushima power station's No. 2 reactor. Within a minute, Japan's number of working reactors went from 30 to 29. The number out of service went from 11 to 12.
For the second time in 19 months and only the second time in history, Japan experienced the chill of having a nuclear power plant's fail-safe mechanism thrown into action -- a flood of water that cools the radioactive core to head off a catastrophic meltdown.
And for the second time, it was simple human fallibility that brought grief to the highest-risk technology in a country that prides itself on the precision of both its human workers and its high-technology equipment.
The world's No. 2 economic power was reminded how thin the margin is that spares it the humiliation of Third World-style brownouts and how high the risks are that Japan takes to sustain that margin.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the Fukushima plant, has held urgent conferences with neighboring producers every spring for three years to piece together enough power to spare the national capital that humiliation in peak air-conditioning months.
Power-conservation appeals go out to factories, hotels and consumers every summer.
The right stuff
It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
Two decades ago, Japan seemed the one country with everything it took to meet a nuclear challenge many other nations couldn't handle.
It has educated and disciplined workers, world-beating high technology, ample capital to do the job right, an accepting populace, a clear need to relieve dependence on imported oil, a history of atomic suffering to assure painstaking care. All these would enable Japan to tame the nuclear genie, or so the argument went.
To make sure it worked, supervision would be by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the technology-driven super-elite within Japan's government meritocracy.
Today, some 80 miles west of Tokyo, the world's biggest concentration of people, is the world's biggest concentration of nuclear plants, a 40-mile stretch of coastal highway that has 13 atomic-power reactors already built and two under construction.
Two years ago, a MITI committee drafted a blueprint to push Japan still farther into world nuclear leadership.
Poor in natural resources, Japan had no choice but to more than double its nuclear capacity in two great leaps, from the 28.7 million kilowatts of 1988 to 50.5 million by 2000 and then to 72.5 million by 2010, the committee said. By then, nuclear reactors would provide half of Japan's electricity.
Japan also was to lead the way into a new generation of nuclear power, the fast breeder-reactor, to reprocess plutonium even as it created electricity.
This month, a ship is moving between Japan and Europe, a secretive and highly controversial mission to bring back plutonium for future use. A gigantic and equally controversial breeder-reactor is under construction near the coastal atomic highway.
So not only the local electric-power industry but also the world's nuclear industry has a lot riding on Japan's credibility as a country that can handle the challenge. When nuclear damage-control equipment went to work again last week in Futaba, public relations damage-control work also began in offices across the globe that promote nuclear power.
"There was no radioactive release from the plant," Scott Peters, of the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, a nuclear power promotion group, said in Washington. "The system worked as it was designed to work."
Indeed, Japanese have never had to evacuate their homes, as Pennsylvanians did after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979, much less suffered radiation deaths and injuries, as Ukrainians and Russians did in the April 26, 1986, disaster at Chernobyl.
There has yet to be a dangerous leak of radioactive material from a power plant into Japan's environment.
Yet even in this country that was supposed to be equal to the challenge, the dream of cheap and abundant power from the atom is troubled.
The date Japan's electric power industry now looks back to is Feb. 9, 1991.
That day, one of 32,000 thin water tubes snapped in two at the No. 2 reactor of the Kansai Electric Power Company's Mihama plant, part of the coastal atomic highway concentration. More than 55 tons of radioactive steam rushed into cooling waters that are supposed to be kept free of contamination.
That was the first time the emergency core cooling system of a Japanese power plant went into operation against an actual emergency.
MITI investigated for nine months and concluded that the problem was a short cut workers from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries took 17 years earlier in building the Mihama reactor.
They had cut short a tie rod designed to reduce vibrations. Years of more jiggling than the tube was meant to take had produced metal fatigue that sheared it crosswise.
That reactor is still on the list of 12 that are out of service. It is expected to remain there for at least another year or two. Its companion, Mihama Reactor No. 1, went out two months ago, also after releasing radioactivity into coolant waters but in a less threatening incident.
The 1991 Mihama investigation shocked everyone.
To citizens, the sobering lesson was that Japan's legendary workers were not infallible.
To officials, the immediate lesson was that there was no choice but to rewrite inspection procedures that had missed slipshod work for 17 years and then to reinspect the country's more than two dozen aging reactors.
Those inspections and their findings are one reason more than one-quarter of the country's reactors are out of service today. No one is certain how long the existing Fukushima No. 2 plant will be out.
No one talked much last week about MITI's plan to double nuclear output by 2010.
The electric power industry never got around to embracing the plan. It has been too busy rewriting safety procedures and trying to persuade towns to accept plants despite fears aroused by Chernobyl and Mihama.
By 1990, when MITI published its blueprint, no new site had won approval in the four years since Chernobyl.
Paying to play
Last month, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. sealed an agreement with two fishing cooperatives in Higashidori, a village at the far north end of Honshu, Japan's main island. That agreement is expected to lead to the first new site approval since 1986.
To reach it, the two power companies and the two cooperatives -- combined membership, 886 fishermen -- had haggled for 27 years. The two power giants are to pay the two country co-ops a total of $150 million, or an average of $169,000 a member, as compensation for fishing waters that will be made lifeless by heat from the plant's coolant waters.
Other power companies haggle similarly with local governments. They offer everything from hundreds of millions of dollars in annual stipends to 15-percent discounts on electric bills. Since Mihama, MITI has studied plans that would offer free electrical power and dramatically increase the stipends.
The central government kicks in additional stipends. MITI is studying ways to increase those, too.
Nine months ago, the Futaba Town Council set out to replenish its nuclear stipends, which provided up to one-third of its revenue in recent years but now are phasing out.
The council voted to invite Tokyo Electric to build more reactors at the Fukushima plant in Futaba, to get the stipends flowing again. That made Futaba the first Japanese town to invite nuclear construction since the Chernobyl disaster.
"I'm so pleased that I feel like weeping," Sho Nasu, president of TEPCO, said in January after he heard about the council's vote.
Feelings in Futaba ran differently after Tuesday's close encounter with catastrophe. Officials asked why TEPCO waited 2 1/2 hours to tell them only the last-resort emergency fail-safe had headed off a meltdown.