Tokyo, Japan – Four years after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami caused the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear industry is preparing for a comeback this year.
Behind industry optimism is strong government backing, despite widespread public unease.
All of Japan’s 48 operational nuclear plants have been out of action at least since September 2013. Meanwhile, the six reactors of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant have been written off and slated for decommissioning – a process that could take 30 years in the case of the three reactors that underwent partial meltdowns.
Such a chastening experience has undermined public faith in nuclear power. A string of opinion polls on the subject indicate many Japanese are negatively disposed towards nuclear energy.
A 2013 Asahi newspaper survey found nearly 60 percent of responders opposed the government’s “plan to use nuclear energy to fuel economic growth,” while a JiJi Press poll conducted the same year found a similar number against Japan’s export of nuclear technology.
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Moreover, last November when the Satsuma Sendai municipality in Kyushu hosting the Sendai nuclear plant approved its restart, opposition was loudly voiced by anti-nuclear groups and communities in the region and farther afield.
A survey by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK on the Sendai restart – the first plant to pass newly created safety tests – found that in Satsuma Sendai 49 percent of those surveyed approved, 44 percent disapproved. In the surrounding districts, which are not favoured with government financial incentives, only 34 percent approved, with 58 percent against. And in the rest of the country 32 percent approved of the restart, while 57 percent disapproved.
Despite such widespread disfavour, the Liberal Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made revival of nuclear power a plank in its political platform, and went on to win a landslide victory in last December’s snap general election.
Abe’s arguments are easily understood. To make up the roughly 30 percent energy shortfall supplied by nuclear plants, power companies have been running fossil-fuel power stations non-stop, some of them old plants rushed back into operation after being retired.
But resource-poor Japan imports most of its energy needs, making it the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), second largest importer of coal, and third largest importer of oil, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Consequently, power companies’ profits have mostly declined, household energy bills have risen 20 percent on average, and the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry (METI) notes there has been “an upsurge in Japan’s dependency on fossil fuels as a power source from 60 percent before the earthquake to 90 percent”.
METI also said the economy has taken a battering. “Due to increased imports of fossil fuels, Japan’s trade balance in 2011 turned to a deficit for the first time in 31 years … and in 2013, it hit a record high of 11.5 trillion yen [$97.5bn].”
Stable energy mix
Still, restarting the nuclear plants “may not help as much as conventional thinking goes”, Jun Okumura, a visiting researcher at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera. “LNG imports increased by ‘only’ 3.6 trillion yen [$30.5bn] in 2013 from 2010. And most of the blame for that goes to higher prices.”
Last April the Abe government published a new Strategic Energy plan, which reversed the previous Japan Democratic Party government’s decision to lessen reliance on nuclear power. The revised plan aims to provide a stable mixed energy supply and designates nuclear energy “an important base-load power source”, meaning it can provide constant power to the electric grid, unlike green energies such as solar and wind power.
Yet before many more of the additional 18 reactors seeking to restart can get back on line, plant operators face two major challenges.
First, they must pass a new safety screening process to show they can deal with potential severe accidents, as well as provide better protection against earthquakes, tsunami and acts of terrorism. Second, they must convince local governments hosting plants that they are safe to start up.
Regarding the first challenge, Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), has “worked to create the world’s toughest regulatory standards”, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka told reporters in June 2013.
Given that the Fukushima nuclear accident hasn't been thoroughly investigated and fully reviewed yet, the idea of creating new regulatory standards without this background is very worrying.
Critics, however, hotly disagree. Other than the NRA, “the only entities saying these are the toughest standards are the Japanese government and the electric utilities”, Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of the Kyoto-based Green Action organisation opposing Japan’s use of nuclear energy, told Al Jazeera.
“Even NRA’s chairman says the NRA does not guarantee safety. It only looks at whether the power company applications meet NRA regulatory standards.”
Hirohiko Izumida, governor of Niigata prefecture, which hosts the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world’s largest nuclear complex with seven reactors, is also critical.
“Given that the Fukushima nuclear accident hasn’t been thoroughly investigated and fully reviewed yet, the idea of creating new regulatory standards without this background is very worrying,” he told the foreign press in Tokyo last October.
The Kashiwazaki plant suffered extensive damage during an earthquake and subsequent fire in 2007, and Izumida said he is puzzled and upset that NRA’s Tanaka refuses to listen to his concerns.
“The lessons we’ve learned are not being made use of by the NRA,” said Izumida. “Basically, they do not communicate with us.”
In consequence, Izumida is a long way from approving restarting Kashiwazaki reactors – even if they meet NRA regulations. And he pointed out that governors hosting nuclear plants have formed an association and have agreed with the safety concerns he has raised.
If Izumida can persuade his fellow governors to resist strong central government lobbying and put safety ahead of economic incentives and political pressure, the central government may find its goal of making nuclear energy “a base-load source” a more difficult task than expected.