Japan to restart nuclear reactors despite widespread fear
In a nation deeply scarred by nuclear disaster in both its military and civilian iterations, Japanese are deeply skeptical and resistant to government plans to take the first steps toward resuming nuclear energy production this weekend.
Survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the hibakusha, or "explosion-affected people" -- are dwindling 67 years after the war-culminating horrors. But last year's earthquake- and tsunami-triggered nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex have instilled fresh and widespread fear about radiation hazards.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has succeeded in lobbying local authorities in Fukui prefecture to approve the restart of two reactors at the Ohi nuclear complex, warning that widespread power shortages will occur this summer otherwise and undermine Japan's already wobbly recovery. The island nation got more than 30% of its electrical energy from nuclear generation before the March 2011 chain of disasters that gradually shut down the whole nuclear production network for safety checks and improvements.
A poll published last week by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed 70% of Japanese surveyed wanted nuclear power reduced or eliminated. It also found 80% distrustful of the government's ability to properly manage the nuclear industry and be candid about safety and environmental concerns.
Mindful of those worries, lawmakers on Friday approved a new and independent oversight scheme to replace the "unholy triangle" of government, industry and regulators whose cozy relations have been blamed for lax safety standards. The proposed Nuclear Regulatory Commission, guided by a five-member board free of financial ties to the industry, will replace the much-maligned Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency, which has regulated nuclear production from within the government trade ministry.
Noda also sought outside evaluation of Japan's 50 reactors. Last week, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the Japanese industry's draft guidance on seismic and flooding mitigation, and in April the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency signed off on safety upgrades at the Ohi reactors as "generally consistent with IAEA safety standards."
Still, many Japanese remain unnerved about the impending resumption of nuclear generation 15 months after the tsunami wiped out containment structures at Fukushima, leading to meltdowns at three reactors and unsalvable damage to the fourth unit at the complex. At least 20,000 died in the natural disasters and tens of thousands were driven from their homes by the nuclear catastrophe that followed.
Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa signaled his approval of the Ohi restart this week, noting the importance of reliable power supplies to the industry-intensive region around Osaka and Kyoto. On Thursday, Ohi Mayor Shinobu Tokioka provided the last needed endorsement.
Political and media reaction to the decisions has been mixed, and Noda's critics have expressed disappointment with his view that resource-starved Japan must see itself as a nuclear energy producer for the long term.
"Does this reflect the sentiment of the citizens, who are seeking an exit from nuclear power?" the daily Tokyo Shimbun asked in an editorial Friday. "Won't it instead make what was supposed to be a rare exception par for the course?"
Tetsuen Nakajima, chief priest of Myotsuji temple in Fukui and an anti-nuclear activist, warned in a commentary in Asahi Shinbum on Friday that Japan risks unleashing another nuclear disaster with "a hasty resumption" of operations at Ohi.
"The myth about the safety of nuclear energy did not collapse with the Fukushima accident," said the priest and advocate for the hibakusha. Only after exposing the Japanese people to yet another disaster, he said, will the cabal overseeing the industry be forced to give up an energy policy that has brought such suffering and loss on the country.
The newly independent regulatory commission expected to be approved in the Diet, Japan's parliament, by July won't take over from the current troika any sooner than September, and that concerns some outside nuclear experts.
"Japan’s nuclear regulator has never been independent from the industry or of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry," said Najmedin Meshkati, a systems engineering professor at USC who has closely followed Japan's legislative and technical responses to the Fukushima crisis. He blames inadequate oversight and error-prone evaluation as contributing factors to the failure of containment structures at Fukushima when they were inundated by the tsunami.
"My only consolation is that the Ohi plant belongs to the Kansai Electric Power Co. and not to the notorious TEPCO," Meshkati said, referring to the Fukushima operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
He said Kansai is the most safety conscious of Japan's nuclear operators and founded the Institute of Nuclear Safety Systems in the wake of two mishaps at its plants in 1991 and 2004.
Meshkati agrees with Noda that Japan must resume nuclear energy production for the sake of its economic future. He expressed the hope that with the Ohi restart, "this milestone which puts KEPCO under the microscope of Japanese media and public will re-energize the safety culture ... which slowly drifted to the back burner prior to Fukushima."
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Anti-nuclear protesters in Tokyo last week failed to persuade Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to drop plans to begin work this weekend to bring two nuclear reactors at Ohi, in Fukui Prefecture, back on line in about three weeks. Credit: Itsuo Inouye / Associated Press