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Restarting nuclear power in Japan. Will the old ”Nuclear Village” bribery factor trump safety concerns?

Nuclear Power in Japan: Safety at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Remains an Issue, Nippon.com   Takino Yūsaku 14 May 21

……………….An illustration of the dilemma facing host communities is the decision of the mayors of Onagawa and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture to approve the restart of Unit 2 of Tōhoku Electric Power Company’s Onagawa Nuclear Power Station. Miyagi Governor Murai Yoshihiro also gave his endorsement and announced the decision in November 2020 after meeting with the two mayors, marking the first time a facility affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami received the go-ahead to resume operation. Speaking at a press conference, the governor cited local employment opportunities and tax revenue as key factors in swaying the consensus of local leaders in favor of restarting the reactor, but stressed that the decision was a bitter one to make.

A similar dynamic is at play in the municipalities of Kashiwazaki and Kariwa, which jointly host the TEPCO power plant. As of January 1 of this year, the facility employs some 6,300 people, including utility personnel and staff of independent contractors, of whom around 3,500 are local residents. Factoring in family members potentially quadruples the number of people who rely on the power plant for their livelihoods, making the decision to restart a difficult one to oppose.

The two host municipalities are similarly dependent on revenue flowing into their coffers from the plant. This includes subsidies and grants from the national government, prefectural duties on nuclear fuel, a tax levied on spent fuel, and local property and income taxes. In 2018, Kashiwazaki received ¥3.4 billion in subsidies and other government funding and Kariwa ¥1.3 billion. If local taxes are factored in, Kashiwazaki’s revenue directly related to the nuclear power plant came to ¥8.0 billion and Kariwa’s ¥2.9 billion, around 15% and just over half of their annual income, respectively. This alone shows just how reliant the communities are on nuclear energy.

Like other host communities, the remote, cash-strapped municipalities saw nuclear energy as a lucrative endeavor. Kashiwazaki and Kariwa approved the plant in 1969, construction of the Unit 1 reactor began in 1978, and the facility went online in September 1985. TEPCO subsequently built six more reactors at the site, each bringing additional revenue to the municipalities. The last of these, Unit 7, was fired up in July 1997.

However, safety concerns have dogged the facility. In July 2007, the Chūetsu Offshore Earthquake sparked a fire and caused radiation leaks, forcing all the reactors offline for a time. After upgrades were made, several units were restarted, only to be halted indefinitely following the Great East Japan Earthquake and meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011.

The prolonged shutdown has seriously impacted the economic wellbeing of the communities. A visit to the shopping arcade next to Kashiwazaki Station and the town’s entertainment district reveals a startling number of shuttered businesses, a situation that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Kashiwazaki’s population, which was already rapidly graying, has shrunk from 90,000 in 2010 to 81,000 as of 2020. The demographic trend in the village of Kariwa can be assumed to be similarly bleak. As in Onagawa, objections residents may have to restarting the reactors will almost certainly take a back seat to the more pressing considerations of jobs and reviving the local economy.

Weighing the Cost of Safety

The results of elections in November 2020 indicate strong public approval for bringing the reactor back online. Residents of Kashiwazaki reelected Mayor Sakurai Masahiro, who supports the restart, to a second term in a landslide over an antinuclear challenger, while Kariwa voters handed pronuclear Mayor Shinada Hiroo a sixth term. The majority of local assembly members in both towns are likewise in favor of resuming operations at the plant.

In contrast, the prefectural government has taken a measured approach toward resuming operation of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, including establishing its own supervisory committee to verify the causes of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi and delaying debate on restarting Unit 7 until the body issues its final report. Barring one or more committee members expressing opposition, however, Niigata Governor Hanazumi Hideyo is expected to certify the restart before the gubernatorial election slated for June 2022 to prevent the issue from influencing the race. It remains to be seen to what degree the recently discovered safety flaws will affect this timeline.

The central government remains eager to get Kashiwazaki-Kariwa back up and running. As Japan slowly transitions from carbon-based fuels toward renewables to reduce CO2 emissions, it plans for nuclear power to provide 30% of the country’s energy needs.

In the end, the deciding factor will be safety. TEPCO so far has invested ¥1.2 trillion in upgrading the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant and has spent considerable time and energy touting its efforts. In clearing the NRA’s stringent regulations, the utility had seemingly demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that it was safe to bring the reactors back online. While there is no denying that the extensive safety measures the utility has put into place have boosted the facility’s resilience against known risks like natural disasters, there is not telling what new and unforeseen threats might be lurking around the corner. Such uncertainty makes it hard for many members of the public, me included, to trust completely in the safety of nuclear power.

It may turn out that the recent security failings, while egregious, on their own would not have allowed an intruder to infiltrate the plant undetected. However, they do illustrate the ongoing risks of neglect, bad judgement, procedural failures, and other human errors, factors that even the most stringent physical upgrades cannot guard against.

The government, despite considerable public uncertainty, is committed to pushing ahead with its plans to bring the country’s fleet of reactors back online. Faced with this reality, it is vital that citizens understand the state of nuclear energy in Japan and decide for themselves if it is something they can live with or choose to do without. https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/d00687/

May 15, 2021 - Posted by | Japan, politics, secrets,lies and civil liberties

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