Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Policy
In response to months of anti-nuclear protests, as well as concerns about upcoming Lower House elections, Japan announced on Friday that it plans to abandon nuclear power by 2030 and will begin construction on no new nuclear reactors in that period. The move is a surprising one for a nation that, before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, was aiming for 50% dependence on nuclear power in 2030 and was the third largest user of nuclear energy. Now, a government policy paper says that the nation plans to depend on 30% renewable energy sources in 2030, an increase from the current 10%. “This is a strategy to create a new future. It is not pie-in-the-sky. It is a practical strategy,” the paper noted.
However, both industry experts and anti-nuclear lobbying groups are questioning whether or not the goal is an effective one, citing lack of details about how the plan will unfold and accusing the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) of making a hasty decision simply to gain votes. They point out that Japan’s energy policy is reevaluated every three years, and another administration may simply reverse this decision. Moreover, the plan fails to address the ongoing issue of idled reactors, a problem that has raised considerable concern among citizens across Japan and inspired a widespread anti-nuclear movement, including demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence that at times have attracted more than 100,000 people. The government admitted that it plans to reactivate those reactors once the newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA) formally begins operations, scheduled for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Yukio Edano, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which promotes nuclear power, said that he has no intentions of halting construction on three nuclear reactors that have already been granted government approval. “I am not considering changing construction plans for nuclear power plants for which the industry ministry has given the go-ahead,” he said. Those reactors include Chugoku Electric’s reactor #3 at the Shimane plant in Shimane Prefecture; Electric Power Development Co.’s Oma Plant in Aomori Prefecture; and reactor #1 at TEPCO’s Higashidori Plant, also in Aomori Prefecture. His statement has raised questions about whether or not the government is really serious about abolishing nuclear power in Japan; if the reactors are allowed to operate for their full 40-year life span, as Japanese law allows, they will not be decommissioned until sometime in the 2050s, not 2030.
Perhaps more strikingly, the government admitted that it has no current plans to eradicate its spent fuel recycling program, a linchpin of its nuclear fuel cycle. Since the 1960s, Japan has aimed to recycle spent nuclear fuel. However, its Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, located in Aomori Prefecture, has been plagued with problems since construction began and has never operated at full capacity. In the meantime, “nuclear garbage,” as Prefectural officials refer to the highly contaminated waste, continued to build up and has been stored at another facility in Rokkasho Village, as well as at facilities in Great Britain and France. When the decision to abandon nuclear power was announced, Aomori officials said that if recycling—on which the town is economically dependent for jobs—was not continued, they would ship the waste back to each of the plants from which it originated. As a result, spent fuel pools at the plants would quickly reach capacity and threaten any possible restarts. The central government caved to that pressure, as well as that of business lobbies, and has agreed to continue the recycling program in spite of its promises to phase out nuclear power. “[Keeping the recycling program in place] is proof that the current government is not serious about phasing out nuclear power,” said Aileen Mioko Smith, Executive Director of Green Action in Kyoto. In addition, criticism about safety has been leveled both in Japan and internationally. Experts point out that the country already has enough plutonium to construct 4,000 atomic bombs, and recycling spent fuel will simply allow it to stockpile more.
Nevertheless, the decision is proving popular with the Japanese public. A new poll conducted by the Mainichi Daily News shows that a large majority—60%—favor completely abandoning nuclear power by 2030. Only 34% were not in favor.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
Even the presumptive Chairman of the newly-created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Shunichi Tanaka, is raising questions about the entity’s political independence, after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said last week that he will move forward with appointing Tanaka and four other commissioners without Parliamentary approval. Many Diet members in the DPJ (Noda’s party) as well as opposition parties, have raised questions about the nominees. Tanaka is a former Vice Chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), and four of the five nominees to the Commission, including Tanaka, have admitted to taking payment from the nuclear power industry within the last few years. “Ironically, I feel that the new body’s political independence is still insufficient,” Tanaka admitted.
Kiyoshi Kurokawa, head of the Parliament-appointed Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, which released its final report in July, is defending the Commission’s findings after criticism that the panel failed to identify those responsible for the nuclear disaster. Kurokawa blamed the crisis on Japan’s culture of conformity, writing in the English version of the report’s Preface, “What must be admitted—very painfully—is that this was a disaster ‘made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to question authority, our devotion to ‘sticking with the program,’ our groupism, and our insularity.” Interestingly, the Japanese-language version of the report did not include a similar passage blaming the nation’s culture. Kurokawa defended the panel’s position, saying, “No one takes responsibility in Japan, even those in positions of responsibility. This is unique to Japan, a culture that stresses conformity, where people don’t complain.” But some analysts say that failure to identify responsible parties will make it harder to press criminal charges. Gerald Curtis, a Japan expert at Columbia University, said this week, “One searches in vain through these pages for anyone to blame. To pin the blame on culture is the ultimate cop-out. If culture explains behavior, then no one has to take responsibility.”
A new audit of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) reveals that investigators failed to evaluate a fault beneath the Shika power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture in 2008 and again in 2009, because the operator, Hokuriku Electric Power Company, told them that the fault was inactive. NISA chose not to verify independently those results, and declared the plant safe in 2009. This year, experts said that the fault appeared to be active, and strongly questioned NISA and Hokuriku’s original assessment. As a result, seismic surveys are now being conducted there. NISA is an extension of METI, which is responsible for promoting nuclear power in Japan, and has been widely criticized for harboring conflicts of interest.
Officials from Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures announced this week that they will petition the Japanese government and TEPCO for compensation to farmers and companies dependent on tourism in the region, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Agriculture and tourism have suffered major economic losses in the last year and a half, as a result of widespread radiation fears.