August 12, 2015
Editorial: Japan should not depend on nuclear power
Kyushu Electric Power Co. restarted the No. 1 reactor at its Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Aug. 11. The move comes four years and five months after the outbreak of the crisis at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant that severely affected local residents' livelihoods.
It was the first reactivation of a nuclear reactor under the new regulatory standards enforced following the nuclear accident triggered by the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The central government and power companies apparently intend to use the resumption of operations at the Sendai plant as a springboard to restart idled nuclear reactors one after another across the country.
However, the government's basic stance toward nuclear power has remained unchanged since the outbreak of the disaster, and lessons learned from the catastrophic accident have not been sufficiently put to good use. The restart of the Sendai plant's reactor must not be a step toward reviving the pre-disaster myth of nuclear plants' infallible safety.
Lessons learned from the disaster include: Nuclear accidents can happen even if countermeasures are taken and that damage caused by nuclear accidents to people, the environment and society differ markedly from that triggered by other accidents in terms of quality and scale. Moreover, Japan is a volcanic country prone to earthquakes. Such being the case, it is highly risky to continue operating atomic power stations in this country. Nuclear energy is far from being a sustainable energy source when considering how to dispose of radioactive waste. Therefore, the Mainichi Shimbun has insisted that Japan should stop using nuclear plants as early as possible.
At the same time, the Mainichi Shimbun has said there could be occasions where Japan must approve of the minimum necessary operation of atomic power plants under certain conditions, taking into account economic and social risks that would be caused by an immediate halt to all nuclear plants.
However, the latest reactivation of the Sendai plant's No. 1 reactor does not meet such conditions and should not have been approved.
In the first place, the government has not clearly characterized the restart as part of the process of phasing out nuclear power. The basic energy plan approved by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year states that Japan's reliance on atomic power will be reduced to the minimum possible level. As such, it is the national government's duty to draw up a road map toward steadily phasing out nuclear power in line with this policy.
However, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has set the ratio of nuclear power to total electric power to be generated in Japan in 2030 at 20-to-22 percent. To achieve this, it would be necessary to rebuild or extend the use of aging nuclear reactors beyond the 40-year limit, and construct new reactors. This indicates the government intends to return to a society dependent on atomic power.
The essential condition of minimizing damage that would be caused by a nuclear accident to local residents has not been met. It is true that the new regulatory standards require nuclear plant operators to implement stricter safety measures, assuming serious accidents that had not been assumed under the previous standards. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) that examines whether nuclear reactors meet the regulatory standards has become more independent of the government. However, these measures to beef up safety measures are necessary conditions but are not sufficient.
In the Fukushima nuclear crisis, confusion in the chain of command worsened the situation. Information on the spread of radioactive substances was not provided to local residents, causing some of them to flee to areas where radiation levels were higher. The evacuation of hospitalized patients and residents of nursing care facilities was greatly confused and many people died while evacuating or at evacuation shelters. Following the accident, the zone where local bodies are required to work out evacuation plans for local residents was expanded from 8-10 kilometers from nuclear plants to 30 kilometers.
Evacuation plans have been worked out for residents near the Sendai plant, but evacuation drills have not been conducted to secure the effectiveness of the plan. The national government has tolerated the local body's failure. The attitude to hastily restart the Sendai nuclear reactor without taking sufficient safety measures for local residents is apparently based on the myth of nuclear plants' infallible safety. To ensure the safety of local residents, the local government should conduct evacuation drills, clarify problems involving the evacuation plan and even suspend operations at the plant depending on the results of the drills.
A lack of clarity for responsibility over reactivating nuclear plants has not changed since before the March 2011 outbreak of the nuclear plant crisis. Since nuclear plants are operated by private companies as business activities, power companies are primarily responsible for restarting atomic power stations and ensuring safety at the plants. However, nuclear plants are operated as part of the government's policy. The government intends to approve reactivation of nuclear reactors as long as the reactors meet the regulatory standards, while the NRA is of the view that meeting the standards does not necessarily mean the plants are absolutely safe. This has raised concerns that nobody would be held responsible if another nuclear accident were to take place, just as was the case with the Fukushima crisis.
There are more fundamental problems. The government has failed to show its determination to promote a nuclear and energy policy while gaining public understanding.
In most opinion polls conducted by various news organizations, those who are opposed to restarting nuclear plants have outnumbered those in favor since the March 2011 accident. In an Aug. 8-9 survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun, 57 percent of the respondents expressed opposition to resuming operations at the No. 1 reactor at the Sendai power station.
Still, no means have been secured to reflect public opinion in the country's energy policy even following the nuclear accident that has had such a huge impact on local residents. The process of using an advisory panel to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry to determine the direction of the nation's energy policy has remained unchanged since before the crisis. The previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which is now the largest opposition party, at least attempted to conduct a deliberative poll and took other measures to reflect public opinion in the energy policy. However, the current administration has not even shown such a stance.
The fact that radioactive waste will only accumulate as long as atomic power plants are operated poses a serious challenge. It is necessary to consider final disposal of radioactive waste on the assumption that it will take 100,000 years before such waste becomes harmless, but Japan has no prospects for working out any feasible disposal plan. Even if a nuclear accident were not to occur again, atomic power stations can not be maintained over a long period as long as no solution is found to problems involving the final disposal of radioactive waste.
First and foremost, the government should draw up a specific road map toward scrapping nuclear power. It is also necessary to create a system under which the NRA would evaluate local governments' evacuation plans and drills in advance. The restart of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant should not be used as a springboard to revive Japan's dependence on atomic power.
August 12, 2015 (Mainichi Japan)