Japan needs a national debate on nuclear risks, ex-U.S. regulator says

Kyodo

Japan needs to hold a national debate on what nuclear power-related risks are acceptable before it restarts reactors idled after the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, a former top official with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

“There has to be a national dialogue on the level of risk acceptable for people, because in the end, the people of any country determine” what risks they are willing to accept, said Charles Casto, who advised Japan on behalf of the U.S. government in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima No. 1 meltdown crisis.

“The elected officials may believe they have control of that, but . . . the people will stand up if they don’t accept the level of risk,” he told a press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday.

All of Japan’s 48 commercial reactors are offline, but the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to restart them.

Public concern over safety, however, remains high more than three years after the triple meltdowns tainted parts of Japan with radiation and robbed thousands of people of their land and livelihoods.

Casto said that an “imbalance of power” between Japan’s utilities, the government and the nuclear regulator was one of the root causes of the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

“Most of the expertise in the power rested in the hands of the utilities,” while the government, the regulator and the country’s emergency response emerged as structural flaws, he said.

After the nuclear crisis, the suspect regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was dismantled for replacement by the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was established in 2012.

The NRA is busy screening reactors for safety under the toughened guidelines drafted in the wake of the crisis. These guidelines must be passed before a reactor goes back online.

While the undermanned NRA is in charge of judging the readiness of the plants, Casto said plant operators themselves should be actively involved in ensuring safety.

“I know there is not a lot of appetite for sharing power with the utilities, but we have to do that if there is to be a future (for Japanese nuclear power generation),” he said. “The utilities have to take on their responsibilities.”

  • GRLCowan

    Two recent major elections in Japan have been advertised by English-language Japanese media as virtual referenda on nuclear energy — but only before the fact, only before they were won by the least antinuclear candidates the people could get.

    One of these candidates, opposed by two strongly antinuclear rivals, won more votes than either of them. I’ve seen attempts to explain this as a successful vote *split*. The trouble with that is, he won more than *both*.

    So, yet more debate? And “plant operators themselves should be actively involved in ensuring safety”, presumably after driving to work in cars with round wheels and see-through windows? One wonders what Casto really said.

    • rossdorn

      That is of course correct and it is a puzzle, why some people fail to understand this.

      What next? They want to have a democracy in this country?

  • Ahojanen

    Japanese people, experts as well as policymakers should discuss not merely on nuclear power (and its risk), but also on the country’s entire energy policy in order to realise an optimal energy efficiency with minimal risks. Nuclear is a relevant option.

    Note that non-nuclear energy resources like fossil fuels or something non-renewable do contain some economic, environmental, as well as public health risks.

    • jimhopf

      “Some” economic, environmental and public health risks??

      Using fossil fuels instead of existing nuclear plants is far more expensive, and the public health risks and environmental impacts of those fossil sources are thousands of times larger than those associated with nuclear power. There has been a clear consensus on this in the scientific/expert community for a long time, but the public refuses to listen.

      Fukushima, the only significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire 50 year history (caused by a 10,000-year earthquake/tsunami event) caused no deaths and is not expected to have any measurable public health impact. Meanwhile, fossil fueled power generation (worldwide) causes ever 1000 deaths PER DAY, and is the leading cause of global warming.

      As is the case whenever nuclear is shutdown, Japan has replaced virtually all of its shutdown nuclear capacity with fossil fuels (not renewables, not conservation). It has been both an economic and environmental disaster.

  • stevek9

    Sorry, but humans are generally abysmal at assessing risk. To give an example coal plants kill tens of thousands of people each and every year … but they are considered acceptable.

    You do need to at least try to educate people on what the various risks actually are. Unfortunately with nuclear there is so much hysteria, irrationality, and negative propaganda, a rational discussion is very difficult.

    It’s particularly sad for Japan that they have bungled their nuclear program so thoroughly, both before and and after the tsunami, since they probably need nuclear power as much as any country.

    • rossdorn

      ” To give an example coal plants kill tens of thousands of people each and every year”

      That is a very interesting statement, I am sure you can supply us with some reliable sources that show that?

      • Mike Carey

        Ross,
        Here is a March 2011 chart from the Next Big Future web site
        for deaths by energy source. Coal is the worst killer, and nuclear
        is the safest, by far. Cheers.

        Energy Source/Death Rate per TWh
        Coal – world avg….161
        (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
        Coal – China………..278
        Coal – USA……………15
        Oil………………………..36
        (36% of world energy)
        Natural Gas…………….4
        (21% of world energy)
        Biofuel/Biomass…….12
        Peat……………………..12
        Solar (rooftop)………….0.44
        (less than 0.1% of world energy)
        Wind……………………….0.15
        (less than 1% of world energy)
        Hydro – Europe…………0.10
        (Europe death rate)
        (2.2% of world energy)
        Hydro – world……………1.4
        (with Banqiao: about 2500 TWh/yr
        and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
        Nuclear…………………….0.04
        (5.9% of world energy)

      • rossdorn

        There is a misunderstanding here, I am only interested in statistics I manipulated myself.

        The problem with nuclear energy is not the ultimate death toll, it is the enormous destruction of the planet. You might want to check out the people that lost their homes in the Ukraine near CHernobyl, or, some japanese prefecture called Fukushima?

        Or, you might think about the problems with nuclear garbage storage…

        But, lets forget all those “minor” problems and kindly get back to the question I actually did ask you, yes?

        “” To give an example coal plants kill tens of thousands of people each and every year”
        That is a very interesting statement, I am sure you can supply us with some reliable sources that show that?”

        Where are the sources that show that:

        …”coal plants kill tens of thousands of people each and every year”..

        Now, if you kindly would do that?

      • Mike Carey

        Ross,
        You probably won’t be satisfied until you do your own research. Take the time to search the WHO and CDC data bases.
        Cheers.
        PS – while you are at it, go to the IAEA web pages to see the results of their 20 years of followup to Chernobyl.

      • Sam Gilman

        Ross,

        There are lots of good data on this. Coal is really dirty, both in terms of direct illness-causing pollutants and CO2. This is not from coal accidents – this is from regular operation.

        Guardian summary of a report on 22,300 deaths a year in Europe from coal:

        http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jun/12/european-coal-pollution-premature-deaths

        U.S. government clean air task force (PDF) with 13,200 deaths a year in 2010.

        http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/The_Toll_from_Coal.pdf

        Deaths from coal in China may be 250,000 a year.

        http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/12/china-coal-emissions-smog-deaths

        Deaths by power source per unit of electricity produced (in which coal ranks by far the worst). (Note that in these calculations, all future deaths predicted from past nuclear accidents are included, while the same is not done for coal emissions now.)

        http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/10/energys-deathprint-a-price-always-paid/

        Similar calculations can be found in a peer-reviewed medical journal here:

        http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(07)61253-7/abstract

        NASA scientists on coal and gas and deaths from both climate change and pollution, and how many lives the use of low CO2, low-polluting nuclear has saved through replacing them to the extent that it has: 1.8 million deaths would otherwise have happened between 1971 and 2009, with 2000-2009 the number of lives saved estimated at 76,000 a year. That’s despite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

        http://climate.nasa.gov/news/903/

        Coal really is a very bad thing.

        Now, if these figures are not good enough for you, state the quality of source you want us all (including you) to use.

      • http://batman-news.com JAFO

        So-called green energy is not all that green. Much of solar power depends on panels made of selenium. They last about 20-22 year before they are useless. Selenium is very bad in soil, just ask the San Joaquin Valley farmers. What will we do in 20 years when we have to start burying thousands of tons of selenium? The waste rate will be far greater than spent fuel. If you prefer the solar reflector model, ask the pilots how they feel about flying over them. Reflector plants are steam plants and lose much of the efficiency that solar advocates claim.
        For wind energy, you need lightweight generators. To make them, most use Neodymium, a lighter-than-iron magnetic metal, to make the generator stators. About 95% of this metal is mined in China. Reliance on this metal means putting your energy program at the hands of China. It also means no control over the mining of this rare-earth metal and its environmental damage or human risk.

  • Starviking

    I hope we can get a full transcript of this talk, as I am naturally worried by the uses of elipsis (…) and the use of words which Mr Casto did not apparently say.

    Elipsis here: “The elected officials may believe they have control of that, but . . . the people will stand up if they don’t accept the level of risk,”

    Unsaid words here: “Most of the expertise in the power rested in the hands of the utilities,” while the government, the regulator and the country’s emergency response emerged as structural flaws, he said.