Nuke opponents warn of more Fukushimas

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The government’s plan to allow nuclear reactors to operate as long as 60 years has shocked antinuclear experts and activists, who warn of a Fukushima sequel.

The central government announced its plan Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe. Under the proposal, once a reactor hits its 40th year, its operator could apply for a one-time extension of up to 20 years under certain conditions.

The proposal, which needs Diet approval, is similar to a law recently passed in the U.S. allowing 40-year-old reactors to apply for up to 20-year extensions.

Currently, plant operators in Japan can apply for a 10-year extension after 30 years, but it is the prefectures where the reactors are operated that have the final say.

Of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors, 15 are at least 30 years old and four are more than 40 years old, including three in Fukui Prefecture and one in Fukushima Prefecture. No local government has ever said no to an extension after 30 years.

Tuesday’s decision drew flak from nuclear power experts.

“Deciding to extend the life of the plants to up to 60 years was a purely political decision made due to pressure from the nuclear power lobby. It wasn’t based on scientific data. And it was made despite the fact we don’t know the exact cause of the meltdowns at Fukushima,” said Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear physicist at Kyoto University Reactor Research Institute who turned against nuclear power years ago and wrote extensively before March 11 on the dangers of aging plants in quake-prone Japan.

Japan is home to about 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes with a magnitude of 6 or higher. The Meteorological Agency reported earlier this month that there were 6,757 aftershocks between the March 11 Tohoku temblor and tsunami and Dec. 31, with 35 of them magnitude 5 or above.

Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Kyoto-based Green Action, warned that operating reactors for six decades runs a high risk of another Fukushima-like accident occurring and is unnecessary, given that even with about 90 percent of the nation’s nuclear plants currently shut down, there is enough electricity.

“The decision is a clear indication that the Japanese government has trashed safety concerns in order not just to protect the utilities from their investments but also to allow them to make even more money on decrepit nuclear plants,” she said.

Meanwhile, stress tests on reactors shut down after March 11 continue. But pressure is growing from utilities to restart their newer units.

In Oi, Fukui Prefecture, the No. 3 reactor, built in 1991, is likely to be the first in the nation to restart, possibly in March.

Hideyuki Koyama, of the group Osaka Citizens Against the Mihama, Oi, and Takahama Nuclear Plants, said financial incentives to Fukui officials from the nuclear power lobby could mean the prefecture’s 14 reactors, the densest concentration in the world, will continue operating the full six decades.

“Fukui Prefecture wants a shinkansen, so central government approval for its construction might persuade local officials to keep the aging plants running,” he said.