Questions about nuclear safety

Nearly 40 months since the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011, steps taken so far by the Abe administration show that it is intent on pushing nuclear power generation. Even as opinion polls indicate that a majority of people would like to see Japan shed its dependence on nuclear power, the administration appears to be trying to turn the clock back to before 2011, refusing to learn from the lessons of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis.

By pushing his pro-nuclear power policies, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and officials of his administration are making light of the sufferings of people whose communities and properties have been contaminated by radioactive fallout from the crippled Tepco plant.

In Fukushima alone, more than 120,000 people remain displaced from their homes, and more than 1,600 people have died due to health problems, some triggered by stress, since the evacuation began — more than the number of Fukushima residents who died as a direct result of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.

Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara recently came under fire for telling reporters that money will eventually settle negotiations with Fukushima residents in municipalities around the Tepco plant concerning the construction of intermediary storage facilities for radiation-contaminated soil, ash and other substances on their land.

While Ishihara eventually apologized for the statement, such a gaffe appears to reflect the Abe administration’s lack of sensitivity toward the sentiments of people whose lives remain disrupted by the disaster.

The Abe administration also recently picked a scientist from the “nuclear village” — the closely knit community of people from the nuclear power industry, bureaucracy and academia as a new commissioner of Japan’s nuclear watchdog. This appointment was duly approved in the ruling coalition-dominated Diet. The move raised doubts about the credibility of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created on the basis of lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and added to suspicions that the prime minister, in his push to restart the nation’s idled nuclear power plants, is trying to turn back the clock to the old ways of nuclear power administration.

Satoru Tanaka, a professor at the University of Tokyo specializing in the nuclear fuel cycle and treatment of nuclear waste, is too close to the nuclear power establishment to make objective judgments on the safety of nuclear power plants. A former head of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, Tanaka served as an official of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum from 2010 to 2012 and received nearly ¥3 million in rewards for screening research projects subsidized by Tepco Memorial Foundation from fiscal 2007 to 2011.

Tanaka’s appointment as an NRA commissioner runs counter to the principle that the authority to supervise the safety of nuclear power plants should have no ties to the parties that promote nuclear energy.

The NRA is currently screening plans by nine power companies to restart a total of 19 reactors at 12 nuclear power plants across the country under safety criteria that were updated in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

The Abe administration says Japan now has one of the world’s most stringent safety standards for nuclear power plants, requiring operators to ensure that the plants will withstand the impact of severe natural disasters such as earthquakes, and plans to restart the reactors once they receive the NRA’s safety clearance.

Experts point to the deficiency in Japan’s nuclear safety system in which preparations for the evacuation of residents around power plants in the event of severe accidents have been left in the hands of local governments and are outside the jurisdiction of the NRA and the central government. There is no guarantee that adequate evacuation measures will be worked out for accidents that result in a large-scale release of radioactive substances into the environment.

From the viewpoint of people who could potentially be affected by severe accidents, the safety of nuclear power plants remains far from certain in this country.