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Is it safe? Ruling party pushes nuclear village agenda

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

In July 2011, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered stress tests on all Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors to assess their safety. By May 2012, they were all idled and for the first time in 40 years the nation was not generating a single kWh from nuclear energy.

Controversially, on June 16, 2012, Kan’s successor, Yoshihiko Noda, approved the restart of two reactors. This sparked mass protests that involved a million demonstrators through a summer that saw Japan’s largest civil protests since the turbulent 1960s.

Noda faced strong opposition to his plans to hasten the restart of reactors due to widespread safety concerns. Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, reinforced those anxieties when he announced in March 2012 that the stress tests were not sufficient to ensure the operational safety of reactors. The government then hastily cobbled together a provisional set of safety guidelines. As it turned out, the two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture that had been restarted met only 20 out of the new 30 safety criteria. Furthermore, the power they generated was unnecessary even during one of the hottest summers in memory.

This April, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) began assessing whether the two Oi reactors meet new safety standards slated to go into effect in July. There are three active fault lines near the Oi plant on the Sea of Japan coast, but it will not have a remote command center ready until 2015 and its raised sea wall will not be completed until March 2014. The new safety guidelines also require that utilities equip reactors with filtered venting systems to reduce radioactive releases in the event of an emergency, but they are granted a five-year grace period before these must be in place.

Consequently, the reactors are now operating based on the hope that these countermeasures will prove unnecessary; Fukushima demonstrates the folly of wishing risk away.

The findings of three major investigations into the Fukushima accident were released in 2012, detailing the absence of a culture of safety in the nuclear industry in Japan and cozy, collusive relations between regulators and the utilities that compromised safety.

All three investigations assert that the meltdowns were preventable, and they all refuted the claims made by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, that the massive tsunami was an inconceivable event that caused the three reactor meltdowns and hydrogen explosions there.

In fact, tsunami risks should have come as no surprise to Tepco, as the Tohoku coastline has been battered by major ones in 1611, 1677, 1793, 1896 and 1933. Indeed, there are tsunami stones dotting the Tohoku coastline warning future generations to heed the perils. Tepco’s own researchers warned about the tsunami risk in Fukushima, and clearly the one triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, was no black swan, once in a 1,000-year event. But the utilities and the government ignored the risks and sited reactors in tsunami-risk zones.

The Diet investigation concludes that what’s termed “regulatory capture” — regulators regulating in favor of the regulated — was at the heart of the nuclear accident, and it blasts the absence of a culture of safety. Moreover, it outlines an institutionalized culture of collusion, complacency and deceit involving regulators and utilities that explains why Fukushima in particular, and the nuclear industry in general, settled for inadequate safeguards.

Finally, in October 2012, Tepco admitted it erred in not adopting stricter safety measures and confessed that it could have prevented the nuclear crisis had it done so. Refuting its own whitewash report issued in mid-2012, Tepco now acknowledges that it downplayed tsunami risk and opposed adoption of international safety standards. It also admits that employees were not properly trained to operate emergency equipment and lacked crisis-management skills.

The utility further concedes that it did not manage risk properly because it feared that any measures to improve safety at the Fukushima plant, or to conduct evacuation drills, would stoke the anti-nuclear movement, interfere with operations, raise costs and create legal and political problems.

These mea culpas are an extraordinary development that highlights shortcomings of the so-called nuclear village — a term commonly used in Japan to refer to nuclear advocates, and beneficiaries, in the utilities, regulatory agencies, the Diet, big business, the media and academia.

Just as it appeared in mid-September 2012 that Noda’s Cabinet had officially sanctioned the phasing out of nuclear energy, major business lobbies publically protested and persuaded the Cabinet to reverse course. Against steep odds, the nuclear village ensured that Fukushima did not become a game-changing event.

The election of the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party to power in December 2012 was not about energy policy, but has revived prospects for the nuclear village; citizens may favor phasing out nuclear energy, but they will not get to decide. Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi tie-ups with General Electric, Westinghouse and Areva mean that Japan stands at the nexus of the global nuclear-energy industry. The recent award of a $22 billion contract by Turkey to a Japanese-led consortium indicates how high the stakes are, explaining why domestic firms’ nuclear-policy preferences are fully reflected in government policy.

If Japan terminated nuclear power, the pain would extend beyond the utilities and vendors; lenders and investors, including Japan’s major banks and insurance firms, would also face huge losses. Pulling the plug on nuclear power could also drive some of Japan’s 10 utilities into insolvency. In addition, there have been strident voices from the political right calling for the retention of nuclear energy because it leaves available the nuclear-weapons option. Washington, too, has warned Tokyo that phasing out nuclear energy would harm bilateral relations because it would raise concerns about Japan’s large stockpiles of plutonium and uncomfortable questions about the consistency of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts targeting Iran and North Korea.

The NRA established in September 2012 has conducted on-site inspections indicating that some reactors are sited on active fault lines, but has not made a decision about shutting them down permanently. It has, however, moved to close the problem-plagued Monju fast-breeder reactor, a non-commercial experimental facility that sits atop an active fault line.

Additionally, the NRA has signaled its intention to not approve restarting a reactor at the Tsuruga plant in Fukui, and there are several other candidates for closure; Tepco’s Kashiwazaki plant with six reactors is sited near an active fault line as proven in the 2007 earthquake there, but the utility’s business plan depends on restarting this facility. There are some tough calls ahead.

There has also been no conclusion declared as to whether or not seismic damage compromised cooling-system pipes at the Fukushima plant in the interval before the tsunami hit. This is an important issue because if the earthquake caused the meltdowns, all Japan’s reactors would require extensive safety upgrades that would further undermine their financial viability. In any event, The Economist magazine has concluded that nuclear power is simply not economically feasible.

The NRA is set to adopt stricter safety regulations in July, but the key will be the implementation and monitoring of compliance. Problematically, there are only nine inspectors overseeing the 3,000 workers engaged in decontamination and decommissioning efforts at Fukushima, a bungled operation that has been left to the discretion of Tepco.

The utility decided against bringing in outside experts and failed to anticipate the problem of what to do with massive volumes of radioactive waste water that are accumulating at the plant. The improvised responses have proved inadequate, while the touted “solution” involves dumping the toxic water into the ocean. The Tokyo-based New York Times reporter Martin Fackler concludes that Tepco is “lurching from one problem to the next without a coherent strategy … a cautionary tale about the continued dangers of leaving decisions about nuclear safety to industry insiders” (NYT 4/29/2013).

Despite this and other red flags on nuclear safety, the political pressures on the NRA to resume business as usual are intensifying.

Proponents of nuclear power have long argued that it is safe, cheap and reliable. The 150,000 residents who remain displaced from the vicinity of Tepco’s Fukushima plant, along with local farmers and fishermen, must wonder about that claim. So too should all Japan’s taxpayers, as the nationalization of Tepco in July 2012 means we now own its vast liabilities.

One year ago the Wall Street Journal estimated that taxpayers were already $45 billion in the hole, and at the end of 2012 the utility requested a further ¥697 billion (ca $8.2 billion) from the government to cover rising compensation payments.

The Fukushima plant looks to be a bottomless pit, with the tab set to grow as decontamination and decommissioning will take decades. And, how much will it cost to deal with all the radioactive waste accumulated at Japan’s 50 other reactors and where will that be stored?

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.