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.

  • Toby Marshall

    Brilliantly clear and important. Where is the protest? The Japanese people set themselves up as victims again and again by not taking responsibility to rein in their leaders. This is a tatemae democracy; the honne is something entirely different, alas.

  • Rich Pasma

    The following comments in the article did not seem to be
    consistent or accurate.

    “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”

    If Japan decides it wants nuclear weapons, as the third biggest economy having a huge and very advanced technology base to build upon, it would have them in short order. It is politics not nuclear power policy and the related materials that
    will determine when Japan will have nuclear weapons, if ever.

    The issue of nuclear power policy is very complex and cannot be fully addressed
    here. Safety is the biggest issue regarding its policy to many people. Tsunamis
    often kill people by the thousands. Is anything being done to reduce the risk
    to anywhere near the level expected for nuclear power? Many might argue nuclear power is a manmade hazard that can be worked around. So could be the automobile if you wanted to spend enough money to eliminate risk at the expense of both economic and mobile freedom.
    What does it cost to replace nuclear power is an important question for Japan and its people to understand given the huge impact its policy decisions will have
    upon its economy. Solar is an option for my house because the government will
    subsidize it provides a false economy akin to what buying lotto tickets for a
    retirement policy would provide.

    Japan has a steel industry using a lot of energy. Some people might say, “So the
    price of power goes up and sacrifices have to be made it is no big deal”. Japan
    has an automobile industry using a lot of steel so the price of its cars goes
    up, it is no big deal. Nothing is a big deal if there is not a price. The government
    will take care of it usually does not work, has a huge price and represents the
    worst kind of thinking imaginable.

    All The Best,


  • Sam Gilman

    Mr Kingston is carrying on the same childish game that so many anti-nuclear commentators play.

    The game is simple. Let’s pretend that no other energy source comes with any problems or difficulties or (gosh) serious health risks. Pretend that, and nuclear power becomes one big irrational conspiracy by the naughty bad people in power. It’s a kind of morality tale where we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. It’s kind of soothing. But it’s really childish.

    Sorry to be more mature about this, but what are the other energy options for Japan? Has Mr Kingston ever investigated this issue with an objective, academic’s eye?

    Renewable energy is very difficult to make work. There’s a lot of propaganda around solar power, but if you look at the small print (rather than “capacity”, look at actual output; ignore peak records, look at average production) it hasn’t been producing that much even in the solar flagship Germany. Wind power is better, but with both you have the problem of highly unstable output. Some European countries can manage these peaks and troughs by shifting power over borders to and from other countries that use more stable electricity sources (fossil, nuclear, hydro), but that’s not a serious option for Japan (unless we build massive powerlines undersea to China). Long-term battery storage sufficient in duration and capacity to cover lulls in wind and sun simply hasn’t been developed yet. Geothermal potential is actually not that high (Iceland manages it by having a very, very small population). Biomass is incredibly land-inefficient.

    So we can’t just assume that renewables are going to work and then shut our eyes and ears to all other opinions. In many cases, renewables are a way of guaranteeing the need for gas capacity far into the future (and thereby the need for fracking). Is it solar backed by gas, or gas interrupted by solar?

    So in the medium term (before we can work out how to make renewables work in a sufficient, and sufficiently reliable manner), nuclear power is actually much less of a crazy choice than this article suggests. (We should all be aware by now of the immediate and long-term health and environmental issues caused by the burning of fossil fuels). Policymakers and businesspeople who advocate the continued use of nuclear power are not simply evil people looking to make money. There is a reason why there has been a slow trickle of senior environmentalists moving to support at least the medium-term use of nuclear power, even after Fukushima. Whatever financial flows Mr Kingston thinks he has identified, there is also the rather important issue of whether the no-nuclear option is actually better. Some perfectly rational sane people, without a penny from anyone, think it might not be.

    Of course, with proper, full coverage of the choices we have, overall people may still reject nuclear power, that in the medium term they would prefer the more familiar risks from oil, gas and coal-burning, and the extra cost of importing this energy. But surely it’s better to make that choice from a position of knowledge, not of ignorance?

    So it would be really nice if the editors at Japan Times, instead of publishing yet another poorly framed article attacking nuclear power, tried to explain to people what the actual energy choices we face are. We’re adults. We can take it.

    Can you?

    • Starviking

      Seconded! Too many fact-free articles on nuclear power at the Japan Times.

  • Starviking

    Some questions and counterpoints.
    If the tsunami risks “should have come as no surprise to Tepco”, due to Tohoku’s history, how did it come as a surprise to the residents of Tohoku?

    As to Tepco’s own researchers warning of the risk – some expansion is required: a Tepco training exercise for designers asked them to estimate what would be needed to guard against a Magnitude 8 earthquake at sea, and the associated tsunami. A seismologist did bring up the Jogan Sanriku Earthquake and Tsunami, of which evidence was emerging it was a recurring event, but at that time consensus was not strong in the academic community on it. In fact, the earthquake was unexpected in size as conventional seismology said they couldn’t occur in the faults that caused the tsunami. You might want to berate the powers that be for siting the Fukushima NPP in an area with a historical records of tsunamis, but until March 11th 2011 the possible magnitude of a tsunami in that area was not understood – and certainly was not understood in the 1960s when building commenced. One has to assume that the other tsunamis listed from 1611 on were factored into the design, which would be why the NPP had defenses against a 5.7 metre tsunami.

    By the way, if you define a “black swan event” as needing to re-occur on a thousand year timescale, the the Tohoku Tsunami certainly fits that mark – the last tsunami was in 869 AD.