¶ “The Bentley Effect: Why Community Energy Will Power Our Future” • The newly-completed documentary “The Bentley Effect” chronicles the community fight against coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. It provides the history, from early defeats to the resounding victory in Bentley. [CleanTechnica]
¶ “100% Renewables Increasingly Possible” • Research may be toppling one of the strongest objections to renewable energy: that wind and solar are not reliable enough to support the grid 24-7-365, so they need fossil and nuclear backup. Scientists seem to be finding simple and cheap solutions to the variability of solar and wind. [Forbes]
¶ “Solar benefits all ratepayers” • Don’t believe the old untruths. Independent studies, in state after state including Maine, have found that solar net metering saves money for all electric ratepayers. Plus, residential solar development is proven to…
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GR: After humans have consumed Earth’s resources and covered the land with concrete and pavement, global warming will be the coup de gras for wildlife. Distributed solar power–rooftop power–where people not corporations benefit is an excellent solution. Musk’s new solar roof tiles give homeowners control over their energy production. These extremely durable tiles will become a major option for those roofing contractors that wish to get involved.
“About 500,000 solar panels were installed every day last year as a record-shattering surge in green electricity saw renewables overtake coal as the world’s largest source of installed power capacity.
“Two wind turbines went up every hour in countries such as China, according to International Energy Agency officials who have sharply upgraded their forecasts of how fast renewable energy sources will keep growing.
“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the…
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¶ “7 Solutions to the Climate Crisis” • With the Paris Agreement becoming official on November 4, we finally have the framework to fight climate change. We have the tools and technology to shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, affordably and effectively. In case you want proof, here are seven reasons to be hopeful. [EcoWatch]
Science and Technology:
¶ Costs for onshore wind energy will fall 15%, while offshore
wind could cut costs by half, in the next five years, a report from the International Energy Agency says. The projections assume sustained policy support, continuing technology progress, and expansion into newer markets with better renewable resources. [Environmental Expert]
¶ Tesla announced an update to its Powerpack system, with a new energy module and power electronics, as well as twice the energy density of its predecessor, bringing it to 200 kWh…
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At COP 21 in Paris, governments agreed to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.
The inclusion of the 1.5°C temperature limit in the Paris Agreement has taken some researchers by surprise and revealed a substantial research gap: at that time a range of 1.5°C emission pathways was available for assessment by the IPCC, but from only two energy-economic models. Researchers are now filling this gap, by working on more pathways consistent with the long-term goal of the Paris Agreement.
A research conference on October 24 in Brussels revealed for the first time a range of 1.5°C scenarios derived from a larger variety of models.
These results are an important milestone in light of the implementation of the Paris Agreement that enters…
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It’s no secret – in the U.S., there’s an election coming up. It’s soon. It’s a big decision for American voters. And it’s a big deal.
It’s also not the only decision with global consequences.
Because at the same time the U.S. campaign season was getting into the business end of things, more and more leaders all around the world were deciding to stand up to climate change and sign on to the historic Paris Agreement.
In fact, 86 parties (representing over 61 percent of global emissions) have already joined this landmark agreement—which will now go into effect on Nov. 4, four days before the U.S. votes. Interesting timing, don’t you think?
Coincidence or not, the timing of the two events highlights what’s at stake for our planet in these decisions and why—we’ve learned anything after months and months of way too many ads, speeches and debates, it’s that politicians…
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Whatever they say, incineration is never a solution as it just redistributes radionuclides into the environment
Black plastic bags containing radioactive soil, leaves and debris from decontamination operations are dumped at a seaside spot devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, in February 2015
Japan is turning to a small German company to generate power from timber irradiated by the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear meltdowns.
Closely held Entrade Energiesysteme AG will sell electricity from 400 of its container-size biomass-to-power machines set up in Fukushima Prefecture, said Julien Uhlig, the Duesseldorf-based company’s chief executive officer. The devices will generate 20 megawatts of power by next year and function like a “biological battery” that kicks in when the sun descends on the region’s solar panels, he said.
Selling green power with Entrade’s mobile units could support Japanese attempts to repopulate a region that’s struggled to restore a degree of normalcy after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed 18,000 people while also triggering the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns that displaced 160,000 others. The prefecture aims to generaJapan is turning to a small German company to generate power from timber irradiated by the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear meltdowns.
Closely held Entrade Energiesysteme AG will sell electricity from 400 of its container-size biomass-tote 100 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2040.
Entrade’s so-called E4 plants, four of which fit inside a 40-foot (12-meter) container, can reduce the mass of lightly radioactive wood waste by 99.5 percent, according to Uhlig. Shrinking the volume of waste could help Japanese authorities who need to reduce the volume of contaminated materials. Workers around Fukushima have been cleaning by scraping up soil, moss and leaves from contaminated surfaces and sealing them in containers.
“Burning won’t destroy radiation but we can shrink detritus to ash and create a lot of clean power at the same time,” said Uhlig, a former German government employee, in a phone call from Tokyo on Oct. 21. “There’s a lot of excitement about this project but I also detected a high degree of reluctance in Fukushima to talk about radiation.”
The decommissioning of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s stricken plant is set to take as long as four decades and the government estimates environmental cleanup costs may balloon to ¥3.3 trillion through March 2018.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in March that Japan cannot forgo nuclear power. His government wants about a fifth of Japan’s power generated by nuclear by 2030, compared with almost 30 percent before three of the six reactors melted down at the aged Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Currently, just two of the nation’s 42 operable commercial reactors are running, which has translated into higher costs for imported fossil fuels as well as more greenhouse gas emissions.
Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection declined comment on the process of burning radioactive waste in Fukushima.
Entrade’s biomass units will be located about 50 km (31 miles) from the Tepco reactors, said Uhlig.
Entrade’s biomass plants, which rely partly on technology developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, are “compactors” of lightly irradiated waste, said Uhlig. The “all in the box” technology is attractive to environmentally conscious clients who have a steady stream of bio waste but don’t want to invest in a plant, he said.
Uhlig’s company is cooperating with London’s Gatwick Airport to turn food waste from airlines into power. Royal Bank of Scotland financed another project supplying power from 200 units to an industrial estate near Liverpool, in northwest England.
Entrade has experimented with 130 types of biofuel since beginning operation in 2009. The company claims its plants convert biomass to power with 85 percent efficiency.
“It’s a bit like mixing muesli, taking what’s available from clients or the locality and blending it,” said Uhlig.
Entrade is moving its headquarters to Los Angeles to generate investment capital and help meet demand in the U.S. and Caribbean, he said. The company has 250 units in California and can hardly keep up with demand, Uhlig said.
Members of the media, wearing white protective suits and masks, walk after they receive a briefing from Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees during a tour of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 10, 2016.
It seemed like compelling journalism: a major investigative story published by The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, about workers fleeing the Fukushima nuclear plant against orders.
It was the work of a special investigative section that had been launched with much fanfare to regain readers’ trust after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, when the Asahi and other media were criticized for initially repeating the official line that the government had everything safely under control.
The team had been producing award winning journalism for three years, but the story on the workers would be the last for some of its ace reporters. And its publication in May 2014 would come to mark the demise of one of the most serious efforts in recent memory by a major Japanese news organization to embrace a more independent approach to journalism.
The hastiness of the Asahi’s retreat raised fresh doubts about whether such watchdog journalism—an inherently risky enterprise that seeks to expose and debunk, and challenge the powerful—is even possible in Japan’s big national media, which are deeply tied to the nation’s political establishment.
The editors at Asahi, considered the “quality paper” favored by intellectuals, knew the culture they were facing, but they saw the public disillusionment in Japan that followed the nuclear plant disaster as the opportunity launch a bold experiment to reframe journalism.
No more pooches
On the sixth floor of its hulking headquarters overlooking Tokyo’s celebrated fish market, the newspaper in October 2011 hand-picked 30 journalists to create a desk dedicated to investigative reporting, something relatively rare in a country whose big national media favor cozy ties with officials via so-called press clubs. The clubs are exclusive groups of journalists, usually restricted to those from major newspapers and broadcasters, who are stationed within government ministries and agencies, ostensibly to keep a close eye on authority. In reality, the clubs end up doing the opposite, turning the journalists into uncritical conduits for information and narratives put forth by government officials, whose mindset the journalists often end up sharing.
The choice to head of the new section was unusual: Takaaki Yorimitsu, a gruff, gravelly-voiced outsider who was not a career employee of the elitist Asahi, and had been head-hunted from a smaller regional newspaper for his investigative prowess. Yorimitsu set an iconoclastic tone by taping a sign to the newsroom door declaring “Datsu Pochi Sengen,” or “No More Pooches Proclamation”—a vow that his reporters would no longer be kept pets of the press clubs, but true journalistic watchdogs.
The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant.
The new section gave reporters a broad mandate to range across the Asahi’s rigid internal silos in search of topics, while also holding to higher journalistic standards, such as requiring using the names of people quoted in stories instead of the pseudonyms common in Japanese journalism.
The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant, which was crippled when a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. The section’s feistier journalism offered hope of attracting younger readers at a time when the 7 million-reader Asahi and Japan’s other national dailies, the world’s largest newspapers by circulation, were starting to feel the pinch from declining sales.
“The Asahi Shimbun believes such investigative reporting is indispensable,” the newspaper’s president at the time, Tadakazu Kimura, declared in an annual report in 2012. The new investigative section “does not rely on information obtained from press clubs, but rather conducts its own steadfast investigations that require real determination.”
That is why it was all the more jarring when, just two years later, the Asahi abruptly retreated from this foray into watchdog reporting. In September 2014, the newspaper retracted the story it had published in May about workers fleeing the Fukushima plant against orders, punishing reporters and editors responsible for the story, slashing the size of the new section’s staff and forcing the resignation of Kimura, who had supported the investigative push.
IITATE, JAPAN – MAY 23: No entry sign in the contaminated area after the daiichi nuclear power plant irradiation, fukushima prefecture, iitate, Japan on May 23, 2016 in Iitate, Japan.
A newspaper-appointed committee of outside experts later declared that the article, which the Asahi had trumpeted as a historic scoop, was flawed because journalists had demonstrated “an excessive sense of mission that they ‘must monitor authority.’”
While the section was not closed down altogether, its output of major investigative articles dropped sharply as the remaining journalists were barred from writing about Fukushima.
Emasculating the Asahi
The abrupt about-face by the Asahi, a 137-year-old newspaper with 2,400 journalists that has been postwar Japan’s liberal media flagship, was was an early victory for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which had sought to silence critical voices as it moved to roll back Japan’s postwar pacifism, and restart its nuclear industry.
“In Japanese journalism, scoops usually just mean learning from the ministry officials today what they intend to do tomorrow,” said Makoto Watanabe, a former reporter in the section who quit the Asahi in March because he felt blocked from doing investigative reporting. “We came up with different scoops that were unwelcome in the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Abe and his supporters on the nationalistic right seized on missteps by the Asahi in its coverage of Fukushima and sensitive issues of World War II-era history to launch a withering barrage of criticism that the paper seemed unable to withstand. The taming of the Asahi set off a domino-like series of moves by major newspapers and television networks to remove outspoken commentators and newscasters.
Political interference in the media was one reason cited by Reporters Without Borders in lowering Japan from 11th in 2010 to 72nd out of 180 nations in this year’s annual ranking of global press freedoms, released on April 20, 2016.
“Emasculating the Asahi allowed Abe to impose a grim new conformity on the media world,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo and a leading critic of the administration on press freedom issues. “Other media know that once Asahi gave in, they were exposed and could be next. So they gagged themselves.”
But government pressure fails to fully explain the Asahi’s retreat. Some Asahi reporters and media scholars say the government was able to exploit weaknesses within Japanese journalism itself, particularly its lack of professional solidarity and its emphasis on access-driven reporting. At the Asahi’s weakest moment, other big national newspapers lined up to bash it, essentially doing the administration’s dirty work, while also making blatant efforts to poach readers to shore up their declining circulations.
The knockout blow, however, came from within the Asahi itself, as reporters in other, more established sections turned against the upstart investigative journalists. The new section’s more adversarial approach to journalism had earned it wide resentment for threatening the exclusive access—enjoyed by the Asahi as part of the mainstream media—to the administration and the powerful central ministries that govern Japan.
Media scholars say reporters in elite national newspapers like the Asahi have a weak sense of professional identity; most did not attend journalism school and spend their entire careers within the same company. Until recently, a job at a national daily was seen as a safe career bet rather than a calling, as the Asahi and its competitors offered salaries and lifetime job guarantees similar to banks and automakers.
This result is that many Japanese journalists are unable to resist pressures that officials can put on them via the press clubs. Journalists who are deemed overly critical or who write about unapproved topics can find themselves barred from briefings given to other club members. This is a potent sanction when careers can be broken for missing a scoop that appeared in rival newspapers. This is what some Asahi journalists in the press clubs say happened to them as the Investigative Section angered government officials with its critical stories.
“When the chips were down, they saw themselves as elite company employees, not journalists,” said Yorimitsu, who after the Fukushima article’s retraction was reassigned to a Saturday supplement where he writes entertainment features.
Unable to weather the storm
It was a bitter reversal for a section that had been launched with high expectations just three years before. Yorimitsu described the new section as the newspaper’s first venture into what he called true investigative journalism. He said that while the Asahi had assembled teams in the past that it called “investigative,” this usually meant being freed from the demands of daily reporting to take deeper dives into scandals and social issues. He said the new section was different because his journalists not only gathered facts, they used them to build counter narratives that challenged versions of events put forward by authorities.
“Until 2014, the newspaper was very enthusiastic about giving us the time and freedom to expose the misdeeds in Fukushima, and tell our own stories about what had happened,” recalled Yorimitsu. “We were telling the stories that the authorities didn’t want us to tell.”
Yorimitsu had been hired in 2008 in to take charge of a smaller investigative team that the Asahi had created in 2006, when it was first starting to feel the pinch from the Internet. From a peak of 8.4 million copies sold daily in 1997, the Asahi’s circulation had slipped below 8 million by 2006, according to the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations. (By late 2015, it had dropped to 6.6 million.) The team of 10 reporters was an experimental effort to win readers. “We realized that in the Net era, independent, investigative journalism was the only way for a newspaper to survive,” said Hidetoshi Sotooka, a former managing editor who created the original team.
However, it was not until Fukushima, Japan’s biggest national trauma since its World War II defeat in 1945, that the newspaper wholeheartedly embraced the effort, tripling the number of journalists and elevating it to a full-fledged section, putting it on par organizationally with other, more established parts of the paper.
Under Yorimitsu, the section’s crowning achievement was an investigative series called “The Promethean Trap,” a play on the atomic industry’s early promise of becoming a second fire from heaven like the one stolen by Prometheus in Greek mythology. The series, which appeared daily beginning in October 2011, won The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2012 for its reporting on such provocative topics as a gag-order placed on scientists after the nuclear accident, and the government’s failure to release information about radiation to evacuating residents. The series spawned some larger investigative spin-offs, including an exposé of corner-cutting in Japan’s multi-billion dollar radiation cleanup, which won the prize in 2013.
OKUMA, JAPAN – FEBRUARY 25: A TEPCO employee uses a radiation monitor as they show a member of the media a destroyed reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 25, 2016 in Okuma, Japan. Five years on, the decontamination and decommissioning process at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues on February 25, 2016 in Okuma, Japan. March 11, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami which claimed the lives of 15,894, and the subsequent damage to the reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant causing the nuclear disaster which still forces 99,750 people to live as evacuees away from contaminated areas.
These were promising accomplishments for a new section, but they also led to resentment in other parts of the newspaper, where the investigative team was increasingly viewed as prima donnas, and Yorimitsu’s “no more pooches” proclamation as an arrogant dismissal of other sections’ work.
At the same time, the Investigative Section also was making powerful enemies outside the newspaper by exposing problems at Fukushima. This became particularly apparent after the pro-nuclear Abe administration took office in December 2012, when other media started to cut back on articles about the nuclear accident.
“We were being told that the Prime Minister’s Office disliked our stories and wanted them stopped,” Watanabe recalled, “but we thought we could weather the storm.”
They may have been able to if the new section had not given its opponents an opening to strike. But on May 20, 2014, running under the banner headline “Violating Plant Manager Orders, 90 Percent of Workers Evacuated Fukushima Daiichi,” the front-page article made the explosive claim that at the peak of the crisis, workers had fled the nuclear plant in violation of orders to remain from plant manager, Masao Yoshida. The article challenged the dominant narrative of the manager leading a heroic battle to contain the meltdowns and thus save Japan.
The reporters behind the story, Hideaki Kimura and Tomomi Miyazaki, had obtained a transcript of testimony that Yoshida gave to government investigators before his death from cancer in 2013. The 400-plus-page document, drawn from 28 hours of spoken testimony by Yoshida, had been kept secret from the public in the Prime Minister’s Office. Unearthing the testimony was an investigative coup, which the Asahi unabashedly played up in ad campaigns. It might have stayed that way, had not the Asahi opened up the floodgates of public criticism by clumsily setting off a completely unrelated controversy about its past coverage of one of East Asia’s most emotional issues.
That uproar began on Aug. 5, 2014 when the Asahi suddenly announced in a front-page article that it was retracting more than a dozen stories published in the 1980s and early 1990s about “comfort women” forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels. The newspaper was belatedly admitting what historians knew: that a Japanese war veteran quoted in the articles, Seiji Yoshida, had fabricated his claims of having forcibly rounded up more than 1,000 Korean women.
The comfort women retractions appeared to be an attempt by the Asahi to preempt critics in the administration by coming clean about a decades-old problem. Instead, the move backfired, giving the revisionist right ammunition to attack the Asahi. The public pillorying, led by Abe himself, who said the reporting “has caused great damage to Japan’s image,” grew so intense that the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan ran a cover story: “Sink the Asahi!”
It was at the peak of this maelstrom, when the Asahi was on the ropes, that criticism of its Fukushima scoop erupted. In late August, the Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, both pro-Abe newspapers on the right, obtained copies of Yoshida’s secret testimony, and wrote reports challenging the version of events put forth by the Asahi. “Asahi Report of ‘Evacuating Against Orders’ At Odds With Yoshida Testimony,” the Yomiuri, the world’s largest newspaper with 9 million readers, declared in a front-page headline Aug. 30. Other media, including the liberal Mainichi Shimbun, followed with similar efforts to discredit the Asahi.
According to these stories, the Asahi’s epic scoop had gotten it wrong by implying that the plant workers had knowingly ignored Yoshida’s orders. The newly obtained copies of his testimony showed that his orders had failed to reach the workers in the confusion. The other newspapers accused the Asahi of again sullying Japan’s reputation, by inaccurately portraying the brave Fukushima workers as cowards. (Whether the Asahi got the story wrong is debatable, since its article never actually stated that workers knowingly violated Yoshida’s orders; however, it did fail to include the manager’s statement that his orders had not been properly relayed—an omission that could lead readers to draw the wrong conclusion.)
The fact that two pro-Abe newspapers had suddenly and in quick succession obtained copies of the Yoshida transcript led to widespread suspicions, never proven, that the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the documents to use against the Asahi. True or not, the newspapers seemed willing to serve the purposes of the administration, perhaps to improve their access to information, or to avoid suffering a similar fate as the Asahi.
The other papers also saw the Asahi’s woes as a chance to steal readers. The Yomiuri stuffed glossy brochures in the mailboxes of Asahi subscribers, blasting it for tarnishing Japan’s honor, while praising the Yomiuri’s coverage of the comfort women. This attempt to poach readers ultimately backfired as both newspapers lost circulation.
“Rather than stand together to resist government pressure, they allowed themselves to be used as instruments of political pressure,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Hosei University.
Despite peer pressure, Asahi journalists say the newspaper initially intended to defend its Fukushima scoop, going so far as to draw up a lengthy rebuttal that was to have run on page one in early September. As late as Sept. 1, Seiichi Ichikawa, the head of the Investigative Section at the time, told his reporters that the newspaper was ready to fight back. “The government is coming after the Special Investigative Section,” Ichikawa said in a pep talk to his team, according to Watanabe and others who were present. “The Asahi will not give in.”
The Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting.
The rebuttal was never published. Instead, President Kimura surprised many of his own reporters with a sudden about face, announcing at a press conference on Sept. 11 that he was retracting the Fukushima-Yoshida article. Reporters say the newspaper’s resolve to defend the piece crumbled when journalists within the newspaper began an internal revolt against the article and the section that produced it.
This was compounded by a sense of panic that gripped the newspaper, as declines in readership and advertising accelerated markedly after the scandals. Fearing for the Asahi’s survival, many reporters chose to sacrifice investigative journalism as a means to mollify detractors, say media scholars and some Asahi journalists, including Yorimitsu.
The Asahi’s official line is that the story was too flawed to defend. The paper’s new president, Masataka Watanabe, continues to talk about the importance of investigative journalism, and some current and former Asahi journalists say investigative reporting will make a comeback.
However, scholars and former section reporters say the setback was too severe. They say the Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting. Worse, they said the Asahi seemed to lapse back into the old, access-driven ways of Japan’s mainstream journalism. “The Asahi retreated from its experiment in risky, high-quality journalism, back into the safety of the press clubs,” said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of journalism at Waseda University in Tokyo. Hanada was so dismayed by the Asahi’s retreat that he established Japan’s first university-based center for investigative journalism at Waseda this year. “It makes me think that the days of Japan’s huge national newspapers may be numbered.”
Nuclear foe: Ryuichi Yoneyama (center), a medical doctor who advocates anti-nuclear policies, raises his hands after he was assured of winning the gubernatorial election in Niigata Prefecture on Oct. 16.
Voters have elected anti-nuclear governors in Kagoshima and Niigata prefectures in recent months. These elections can be considered referenda on nuclear power because that issue was the main focus of debate in both campaigns. The results have put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — and his plans to rev up the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors — behind the eight ball of public opinion and prefectural politics.
There will be a slew of gubernatorial elections in 2017 that will focus on nuclear energy, an issue where the Liberal Democratic Party is vulnerable because it was in charge when all of Japan’s reactors were built and was arguably complicit in the culture of complacency and regulatory capture that compromised public safety. The LDP owns the Fukushima disaster and thus the shambolic cleanup further discredits Abe’s party.
The media portrayed the victory of Ryuichi Yoneyama in Niigata over the “nuclear village” candidate, former construction ministry bureaucrat Tamio Mori as a major upset. Abe endorsed Mori, but his pro-nuclear advocacy proved his undoing. Mori toned down that message toward the end of his campaign but it was too late to fend off Yoneyama, who rode the wave of nuclear anxieties into office. He replaces another anti-nuclear governor who stymied Tepco’s plans to restart reactors in the prefecture in the aftermath of the Fukushima debacle and revelations of slack safety practices.
In 2007, the massive 8-gigawatt Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which consists of seven reactors, shut down after a strong earthquake struck Niigata. Local scientists had sued Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government for selecting a dangerous site for the world’s largest atomic power plant, arguing that it is built on an active fault line, but a judge dismissed their claims as baseless in 2005.
Mother Nature ruled otherwise. The reactors all shut down, but the land subsided, breaking water pipes so that fire-fighting was delayed. More importantly, the manager of the plant said during a subsequent NHK interview that first responders had been very lucky, explaining that he and his staff would have been helpless if anything had gone wrong, as they were all locked out of the command center where the reactor controls are located because the door to the room had jammed shut due to land subsidence. Improvising, they set up whiteboards in the parking lot and relied on their mobile phones, but they had absolutely no means to manage any reactor emergency if there had been one. This story is not forgotten in Niigata.
There is heightened concern among most Japanese about nuclear safety following the three meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. Three major investigations into the nuclear disaster have pinpointed human error as the main cause of the meltdowns, highlighting cozy and collusive relations between Tepco and nuclear watchdogs that compromised safety because regulations were not strictly enforced and regulators averted their eyes from serious breaches. They are also mindful that back in 2002 a whistleblower alerted authorities to Tepco’s systematic falsification of repair and maintenance records for all 17 of its reactors. A coverup failed and the media subsequently revealed that all of the utilities operating nuclear reactors had engaged in similarly shoddy practices, cutting corners to save money.
Have the lessons of Fukushima been learned and led to appropriate countermeasures to upgrade safety? Apparently voters are not convinced by the PR machine that touts stricter safety regulations and hardware upgrades, and they have been finding support among judges who have issued injunctions blocking reactor restarts that have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority. The NRA is the reincarnation of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which lost all credibility following post-Fukushima meltdown revelations of slipshod oversight. Alas, the Homer Simpsons of NISA now constitute the majority of NRA employees, undermining the credibility of the new nuclear watchdog agency.
The government and utilities are supposed to consult local opinion, but in practice they limit this to communities hosting reactors because these people have a vested interest in rebooting nuclear plants. Nuclear power plants don’t generate revenue and subsidies if idle, while restarting a reactor opens the spigots of cash that these remote communities are dependent on. Now that the evacuation zones have been expanded to 30 kilometers, extending into adjoining towns that shoulder the same risks without the benefits, it would make sense to give these communities a say in restarts. However, the central government opposes that because it fears that locals who have not been co-opted wouldn’t be in favor of restarts, especially since evacuation drills have been chaotic, revealing that the government is advocating restarts before it is properly prepared to deal with a crisis.
Only two of Japan’s 42 reactors are operating and one of them is in Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, where another anti-nuclear governor won election. This reactor is not far from where the devastating Kumamoto earthquake struck in April, in a region that also features a number of active volcanoes spewing ash that could block roads and impede an emergency evacuation.
What are the chances of a simultaneous earthquake, typhoon, tsunami and volcanic eruption affecting a nuclear reactor? Probably not that high, but there was such a deadly combination of earthquakes, eruptions, landslide and tsunami with a 100-meter wave recorded in Kyushu in 1791 that killed 15,000 people. But no worries — that was on a different part of the island.
Exit polls from Niigata’s gubernatorial elections found that 73 percent of voters oppose restarting the Niigata plant and only 27 percent are in favor. A mid-October Asahi poll found that 57 percent of Japanese nationwide were opposed to nuclear restarts and only 29 percent were in favor. More importantly, the same poll found that 73 percent of Japanese favor a zero nuclear energy policy in the near future and just 22 percent are opposed to the idea.
What must worry Abe even more is that within the LDP, 45 percent of members oppose nuclear energy while just 42 percent support his nuclear advocacy. Thus former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may be right with his recent assertion that Abe has a nuclear Achilles’ heel that may lead to his downfall.
METI proposed that TEPCO would start a subsidiary to manage all its nuclear plants. Saying it would facilitate restarting the reactors at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa NPP, as since the beginning of the Tepco-owned Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster the government planned to use profits from the Tepco-owned Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP to finance the Fukushima Daiichi disaster costs; and that it would also encourage collaboration among other utilities nuclear power plants, and make merger or sale easier. METI thinks such change would also encourage the public to support nuclear reactors restarting.
As the total decommissionning costs could double, Tepco would also like the rules to be changed so as not take an added large loss on their books.
One day later Hitachi announced that they consider merging their nuclear business with Toshiba and Mistubishi.
These recent new developments show Japan nuclear industry on the defensive, former PM Koizumi warned the Liberal Democratic Party could lose the next election if it focuses on the nuclear power issue.
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