The shutting down of No. 4 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture in the early hours of Sept. 16 for a regular inspection means that all of Japan’s nuclear power generation reactors are now offline. This is the second time that Japan has been in a “no-nuclear” situation, following the one that lasted for about two months from early May 2012 in the wake of the 3/11 disasters.
After the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s approval of new safety standards for reactors on June 19, four power companies have applied for safety examinations of 12 reactors with a view to restarting them. The NRA is currently carrying out the examinations. But the ongoing disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant shows that nuclear power is extremely difficult to handle and inherently dangerous. The government should work out a policy as soon as possible that shows a timeline for ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power generation.
There currently exists no established technology to safely store high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants for long periods of time. It is impossible for any scientist to predict what will happen to materials encasing such radioactive waste, which would be buried in geographic layers below the Earth’s surface, in 100 years later, 1,000 years or 10,000 years or longer. It takes tens of thousands years for the radiation emitted by high-level nuclear waste to drop to safe levels. It is environmentally dangerous to store such waste on a semipermanent basis and unethical to leave the problematic management of highly radioactive waste to future generations.
The experience of this summer shows that most power companies in Japan can meet electricity demands even in extremely hot weather without relying on nuclear power. Kepco was the only power company that used nuclear power generation during this period. Kepco and Kyushu Electric Power Co. experienced only a few days in which demand for electricity reached or topped 95 percent of supply capacity. Generally speaking, Japan’s power companies had a fairly safe margin of surplus power. In areas serviced by Tepco, for example, there were no days when demand reached or exceeded 95 percent of capacity.
Given the ongoing fiasco in Fukushima, it is deplorable that the Abe administration is trying to revive an energy policy that relies on nuclear and coal-burning power generation. It almost seems as if the Fukushima nuclear disaster never happened. The administration is closing its eyes to the tremendous social and economic risks involved in nuclear power, ranging from accidents to the long-term storage of highly radioactive waste.
To protect Japan from the dangers of nuclear power, the government should end its present policy of building large-scale nuclear and thermal power generation plants in a limited number of places. Instead it should pursue a policy of building many small-scale power generation facilities that utilize renewable energy sources near towns and cities across the country. It also should shift from an emphasis on increasing power-generation capacity to an emphasis on reducing demand for electricity.
The Abe administration has done next to nothing to reduce Japan’s power usage and it has virtually no policies to decrease emissions of greenhouse gasses that are widely believed to be responsible for global warming. As long as Japan continues to pursue a policy of operating large-scale thermal power generation plants without increasing the weight of renewable energy sources, Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions will likely grow.
It is also important to change the current system in which major power companies exercise regional monopolies by both generating and distributing electricity. The function of transmitting and distributing electricity should be removed from the control of major power companies. Such a step would not only encourage new power generating entities to enter the market — thus leading to increased competition and lower electricity rates — but also enable electricity produced by green power-generating entities to be transmitted to consumers in other regions. The government and major power companies also should build more facilities to convert 50 Hz electricity in Eastern Japan to 60 Hz electricity in Western Japan and vice versa so that electricity can be easily transmitted between the two regions as necessary.
The Democratic Party of Japan government formed its energy policy calling for ending Japan’s nuclear power generation in the 2030s after listening to the opinions of citizens and judging that a majority of citizens supported such a policy. But the Abe administration has turned a deaf ear to public opinion and stubbornly pursues its pro-nuclear energy policy.
People should realize that the Abe administration is basing its energy policy primarily upon the opinions of major companies and closely associated experts, with officials of the trade and industry ministry’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy serving as members of the secretariat for their discussion body. This is a revival of the old way of deciding on energy policy that was used by Liberal Democratic Party governments in the past. The majority of citizens who favor an eventual end to Japan’s reliance on nuclear power should actively protest against this approach to force the government to change its ways. Otherwise the Abe administration will continue to move toward the restart of nuclear power plants and it will be business as usual.
The Abe administration has largely left management of the crisis at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to Tepco and there is no firm prospect that the government and Tepco will be successful in their endeavors to halt the leaks of radioactive water at the plant site. The central government also has left to local governments the task of devising measures to evacuate and protect local residents in the event of a large nuclear accident.
If the Abe administration fails to set a clear timeline for ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power and continues to push for the restarting of reactors, it will be sowing the seeds of future nuclear problems and the results could be tragic.