Nuclear Lessons Unlearned in Japan

On 11 March it will be four years since a huge earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. There is still no end in sight for the suffering of the people of Fukushima, but now it seems that the government and the electric power industry are moving inexorably towards the restart of reactors which have been shut down for most of the time since the accident.

“How can this be?”, incredulous observers might wonder. There are a few key factors which make it possible for the government to ignore the wishes of the bulk of the Japanese population for a nuclear phase out.

First, the current government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), came to power not because of its support for nuclear energy, but because of the incompetence of its predecessor. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) enjoyed a brief three years in government, a period which happened to coincide with the nuclear accident. Responding to public opposition to nuclear power, it declared a goal of phasing out nuclear energy by 2039, but due to its many other failings it was decimated in December 2012 elections and has failed to recover since. The LDP has returned to the pre-eminent position it has occupied for most of the last 60 years as Japan’s leading party and, because it has no challengers, it is riding roughshod over the public will.

Second, other than the national government, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and the electric power companies, the only people with any say over whether or not to restart reactors are the governments of the host municipalities and prefectures. These are economically dependent on the nuclear industry. Although residents live in fear of nuclear accidents, they feel they have no alternative. Of course, residents of a much wider region will be affected by any accident, but their opposition counts for nothing.

Third, NRA is stacked with nuclear proponents. Although the nuclear safety system was reformed after the nuclear accident, last year the government replaced NRA’s more critical commissioners with people who are expected to comply with the wishes of the government and industry.

Besides the problems with the make up of the nuclear regulator, the conditions for restart do not include requiring workable evacuation plans to be in place. Municipalities within a 30-kilometre radius of nuclear power plants are obliged to draw up evacuation plans, but most of these plans are clearly unworkable in practice.

The electric power companies will say they are putting safety first, but their principal concern now is to get out of the red financially. In reality, the “safety myth” that created the conditions for the Fukushima nuclear accident is alive and well in Japan, not to mention every other country operating nuclear power plants. That is because without a myth of safety, no one would allow nuclear power plants to operate.

It is not yet certain when the first reactors slated for restart (Kyushu Electric’s Sendai Units 1 & 2 and Kansai Electric’s Takahama Units 3 & 4) will resume operations, because NRA’s safety review process is not yet complete. The process has taken much longer than expected and there might yet be a few twists and turns, but unless some unforeseen obstacle arises, it is only a matter of time.

Philip White