March 30th, 2008


Our SteamPunk Future

JSW Muroran Plant

From a windswept corner of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Japan Steel Works Ltd. controls the fate of the global nuclear-energy renaissance.

There stands the only plant in the world, a survivor of Allied bombing in World War II, capable of producing the central part of a nuclear reactor's containment vessel in a single piece, reducing the risk of a radiation leak.

The Japan Steel factory's rusting, corrugated-metal warehouses, blackened by soot, belie the precision and patience required to fashion a 600-ton steel ingot into a tube with walls 30 centimeters (12 inches) thick. Blue-clad workers, some wearing balaclavas to keep warm, draw on knowledge built up when Japan Steel made the 18-inch gun barrel -- the world's largest at the time -- for the World War II battleship Yamato. A 1945 attack on the Muroran plant killed more than 200 workers.

Japan Steel's most prized products also include samurai swords, with price tags of about 1 million yen. They're made in a traditional Japanese wooden hut, up a steep hill from the rest of the Muroran factory. It's decorated with white zigzag papers called "shide" used in Shinto shrines, creating a sense of sanctity in the workshop.

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