Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nuclear renaissance involves downplaying risks, restarting reactors, building new ones, and exporting reactor technology and equipment. A number of hurdles remain before he can rev up the reactors, but the summer of 2014 will probably be Japan’s last nuclear-free one for decades to come.
On April 11, 2014, Abe’s Cabinet approved a new national energy strategy that embraces nuclear power. This is not surprising given that Abe has vigorously promoted bringing idled reactors back online and is pitchman-in-chief for exports of nuclear technology and equipment. The new plan also opens the door to new reactor construction.
Abe’s nuclear renaissance has become complicated, however, following the revelation in May 2014 that the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. had been hiding the fact that almost all workers and managers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant bolted the scene and abandoned their posts on the morning of March 15, 2011, as the crisis seemed to be spiraling out of control. Instead of remaining on the plant site as ordered, most workers fled to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant 10 km to the south. While such actions are understandable, the mass exodus raises the question of whether nuclear reactors can be operated safely if those responsible for conducting emergency operations cannot be relied on to carry out their duties.
Doubts about the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s safety reviews are also gathering as the shambolic decommissioning operations at Fukushima undermine its credibility. Why did the NRA allow Tepco to cut corners and compromise safety, leading to extensive radioactive contamination of groundwater now seeping into the ocean? Reports of problems with malfunctioning decontamination equipment, leaky storage tanks for contaminated water and worker error are emblematic of the endless bungling. Why is Tepco, an exceptionally incompetent institution, being entrusted with such a crucial task?
The NRA’s failure to adequately monitor the cleanup raises questions about whether it has the capacity to oversee strict enforcement of new safety guidelines and institutionalize a culture of safety.
“We are not assuming that an accident the operator cannot control will take place,” NRA Chairman Tanaka explains, justifying reliance on the nuclear plant operator to manage a nuclear accident. In light of revelations, however, that is not a reassuring assumption.
The prospects for restarts got a shot in the arm when Abe nominated a pronuclear advocate with financial ties to the nuclear industry to become an NRA commissioner. This blatant political meddling damages the already threadbare credibility of the safety review process.
Evacuation zones have been expanded from a 10-km to a 30-km radius around nuclear plants, involving millions more residents and exponentially increasing logistical difficulties, but local authorities and utilities remain woefully unprepared. A March 2014 survey found that authorities in only six of the 16 nuclear plant evacuation zones have prepared the required evacuation plans. Are these existing evacuation plans plausible in a crisis or just paper exercises enabling hosting communities to check off the requisite box?
Chubu Electric simulated an evacuation of the 860,000 residents living within 30 km of the Hamaoka plant that revealed how difficult this would be in an actual emergency, taking so much time in traffic jams (from 32 to 46 hours) that those fleeing an accident would be subject to significant radiation exposure. Simulations conducted in Shimane and Kyushu reported similar snafus.
The evacuation preparedness problem won’t go away and an improvised exodus means mayhem. It is therefore alarming that none of the clusters of towns in any of the designated evacuation zones around the nation’s nuclear plants has conducted a live evacuation drill.
The NRA is reviewing applications to restart 19 nuclear reactors.
The safety screenings involve confirming that they meet new stricter safety standards, but Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida warns that this doesn’t mean they are safe to operate. He points out that local authorities are not able to cope with cascading simultaneous disasters as occurred in 2011, a risk the new guidelines do not address.
Perhaps this explains why a recent Asahi poll finds continued high public opposition to nuclear energy: 77 percent of respondents favor phasing out nuclear energy, while only 14 percent oppose such a policy.
Are the potential dangers of hosting a reactor an acceptable risk given the alternative of economic decline and depopulation? Many communities in remote coastal areas where Japan’s fleet of reactors are sited are grappling with this calculus. Until now the Aomori Prefecture fishing port of Oma has been famous for its bluefin tuna catches, but that is changing due to the town’s decision to host a nuclear power plant. Just across the Tsugaru Strait from Oma, the city of Hakodate, Hokkaido, filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the central government and the utility to block construction of the Oma mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) reactor. This is the first lawsuit in Japan of its kind in which a local government is the plaintiff seeking an injunction against building a nuclear plant. The two towns are separated by about 23 km of water, meaning that part of Hakodate, which has a population of 275,000, falls within the newly extended 30-km evacuation zone. The mayor of Hakodate complains that he is being asked to prepare an evacuation plan without adequate information and asserts that the lessons of Fukushima are being ignored as government support for nuclear energy does not include adequate assistance for disaster management, outsourcing it to local communities that lack sufficient capacity.
The possibility of legal entanglements casts a shadow over Abe’s nuclear renaissance as local governments and citizens groups mount challenges that could delay restarts and new plant construction. Indeed, in May 2014, the Fukui district court ruled against Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco) in a lawsuit filed by citizens who oppose the restart of the utility’s Oi reactors. The judge rejected Kepco’s claims that the reactors could be operated safely and asserted that the intrinsic dangers of nuclear reactors combined with the unpredictability of earthquakes endanger the fundamental constitutional rights of citizens.
This establishes a precedent that could influence 16 similar cases in the judicial pipeline, but Kepco is appealing the ruling and Abe’s spokesperson shrugged it off, insisting that it would have no influence on safety evaluations. His aplomb is understandable as Japan’s higher courts are reliably submissive in nuclear energy lawsuits.
Maybe this is why the government rules out a national referendum on nuclear energy because citizens are not so predictably compliant and oppose the vested interests Abe represents.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.