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Will People Power End Japan’s Nuclear Plans? The Niigata Effect



In Japan, energy policies may not go the way the government and the nuclear industry want, Pablo Figueroa writes.

There was a common concern in the mind of voters during the recent poll to elect a new governor in Japan’s Niigata prefecture: to be in favour of or against restarting nuclear reactors. The triumph of nuclear-cautious Ryuichi Yoneyama shows that people in that area of the country are distrustful of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the infamous electric utility that owns the Kashiwasaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant.

Currently shut down for inspections, Kashiwasaki-Kariwa is a massive seven-reactor power station and the largest nuclear complex in the world. Across Niigata prefecture, local residents are worried about the safety of the reactors looming in their backyard. And they should be. TEPCO is one of the main parties responsible for the 2011 nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi. The company’s systemic falsifying of safety checks, concealment of the true extent of earthquake damages and multiple nuclear incidents at their plants, as well as their proven ineptitude in dealing with the Fukushima crisis (which resulted in the worsening of the nuclear disaster) has been thoroughly documented. TEPCO recklessly put financial profit ahead of public safety, and people know it.

Yoneyama, endorsed by the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, defeated Tamio Mori, a construction bureaucrat backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP’s pro-nuclear stance has been maintained with an almost blind stubbornness and Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has done his utmost to restart the reactors that went offline for safety checks following the Fukushima debacle.

What shaped the Niigata election was the candidates’ attitudes toward Kashiwasaki-Kariwa: Mori remained ambiguous while Yoneyama pledged not to support restarts without a deeper investigation of the Fukushima disaster and the ability to protect prefectural residents. Most media in Japan portrayed Yoneyama as antinuclear but his stance would be better described as nuclear-cautious. His intention is to build dialogue with the nuclear industry and the central government, rather than spark a confrontation.

Losing the Niigata election is a blow for the LDP since not being able to secure control over the restarting of Kashiwasaki-Kariwa will have implications for the government’s energy policy. At the moment, only two of Japan’s forty-eight operational reactors are connected to the grid, one at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture and one at the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant in Ehime Prefecture. Previously, two more reactors had been restarted at the Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Oi Prefecture but were later shut down when a district court issued an injunction ordering Kansai Electric Power Company to halt them. This outcome was perceived as a major victory against the nuclear industry’s unethical policies that dismiss people’s logical fears as unfounded.

Despite claims of improved safety standards, the reactors that are currently functioning still remain a huge public threat. When Unit 3 at the Ikata plant was restarted, the governor of Ehime stated that an accident similar to that in Fukushima will never happen. This claim is based on a safety myth and unnecessarily puts prefectural residents at risk. First, the plant sits just five kilometres off the Median Tectonic Line Fault Zone. This fault line, Japan’s longest, is active and projections estimate that a major quake will strike the island of Shikoku where the plant is located. Furthermore, the so-called emergency evacuation plans are largely smoke and mirrors. Nuclear energy operators make the common mistake – or adopt the typical strategy – of relying on best-case rather than worst-case scenarios. For instance, if a nuclear accident were to occur at Ikata, it is expected that people will flee by boat or car but this does not take into consideration potential bottlenecks, damage to roads, etc. A look at the access routes suggests that almost 5,000 people living on the peninsula west of the plant might become trapped. If that happens, they will be required to stay indoors where they would have no effective means of avoiding exposure to radioactive contamination. In addition, radiation-proof facilities in Ikata town are located underneath landslide-prone areas.

The situation of the Sendai Plant in Kagoshima is comparable. A major earthquake recently hit Kumamoto, an adjacent prefecture, and this was yet another red flag forcing many residents to consider how and where they would escape to should a major nuclear accident take place. The electric utility does not have a proper contingency plan. This severe flaw is a common pattern among nuclear companies and has been repeatedly denounced by groups opposing nuclear restarts.

Where is Japan going in terms of nuclear politics? The country’s leadership is in denial over the ongoing Fukushima catastrophe and the tragic situation of nuclear evacuees, the multiple issues surrounding radioactive contamination of vast expanses of land and the potential spikes in the incidence of thyroid cancer among children in Fukushima. Abe’s claims that Fukushima is ‘under control’ were met with public criticism and widespread scepticism: polls showed that practically nobody believed him. This attitude goes in lockstep with the electric utilities’ assertions that, under more stringent safety regulations, it is ‘safe’ to restart some reactors. None of the arguments employed to convince people of the need for nuclear power hold true: as it is, nuclear power is neither a safe nor a cheap option.

However, the government keeps pushing for a nuclear renaissance, completely disregarding the important lessons that could have been learned from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.  But there might be a snag in the government’s plans. The ‘Niigata Effect’ may be repeated during prefectural elections next year in Onagawa, Tokai and Hamaoka, where utilities are trying to get reactors back online. The outcome of these elections might delay or impede such processes; municipalities’ might not grant the consent needed for restarts.

Without a proper consideration of the risks involved, transparency, citizen participation, and multiple stakeholder involvement, there is the danger of reproducing the institutional mindset that incubated the Fukushima catastrophe. Japan’s leadership would benefit greatly from addressing these issues rather than trying to sweep them under the rug. What is at stake goes beyond economic profit and political muscle. Irresponsible nuclear policies endanger the wellbeing of present and future generations in Japan and the wider world.

November 8, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , , | Leave a comment

TEPCO draws fire after apologizing to Niigata panel


Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida, right, and Naomi Hirose, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., hold a meeting at the Niigata prefectural government building in January.

NIIGATA–Even when they apologize, executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. can still manage to draw additional criticism.

The executives, who hope to restart one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world in Niigata Prefecture, held talks here March 23 with a nuclear technology committee set up at the prefectural government.

Takafumi Anegawa, chief nuclear officer of TEPCO, offered an apology for the utility’s misleading responses to the committee’s repeated inquiries about the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Specifically, Anegawa acknowledged that TEPCO could have declared the triple meltdown at the plant a few days after the crisis unfolded following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, instead of two months later.

TEPCO said late last month that it had found a passage detailing the criteria of a meltdown in its emergency response manual. Had the company known about that passage when the accident started, TEPCO said, it could have declared the meltdowns earlier.

When pressed by the Niigata committee on March 23 on why it took five years to find such an important passage in the emergency manual, the TEPCO executives did not give an explanation, saying the matter was still under investigation.

Committee members voiced their displeasure.

“Why did TEPCO turn it up now?” asked Masaaki Tateishi, professor emeritus of sedimentology at Niigata University. “It is out of the question for TEPCO to seek to restart its reactors, given its corporate culture.”

Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a journalist covering nuclear technology and a committee member, said TEPCO has again shown its slipshod approach toward dealing with an accident.

“TEPCO must have produced the manual but did not read it,” he said. “What it comes down to is that (its employees) had not been well trained.”

TEPCO plans to bring online two of the seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture and has submitted a safety screening application to the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant has a capacity of 8.21 gigawatts.

However, Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida remains cautious toward restarting the nuclear plant, even if the reactors meet the NRA’s stricter safety regulations that were set following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The governor believes the full picture of the Fukushima disaster has not been unveiled.

The Niigata nuclear technology committee has been looking into what went wrong at the Fukushima plant, even after the Diet and the government wrapped up their investigations into the nation’s worst nuclear accident.

In autumn 2013, the committee set up an investigative panel to determine why TEPCO’s official acknowledgment of the meltdowns was delayed.

The panel demanded explanations from the company. TEPCO said in a reply in November 2015 that what constitutes a meltdown “had not been defined” within the company.

The panel kept pressing TEPCO, and in late February, TEPCO admitted that the manual used at the time of the Fukushima disaster had a passage defining a meltdown.

Anegawa told the committee on March 23 that the passage was uncovered during an investigation conducted “with the utmost care” to determine whether the delay in reporting to the government the meltdowns and other aspects of the Fukushima accident violated the law.

However, he declined to discuss details of how the company came across the passage, saying a third-party panel comprising lawyers and other experts were studying the issue.

After the meeting, Anegawa told reporters that he regretted the company’s probe “was not thorough.” He did not say when the third-party panel will release its findings.

Committee chief Ken Nakajima, professor of reactor safety at Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, said the committee will continue to demand explanations from TEPCO.

“Humans are the ones who must ensure the safety (of nuclear facilities),” he told reporters. “Trust in TEPCO has been eroding. We cannot move ahead unless we are convinced of the veracity of what the company says.”

Governor Izumida, who has long questioned TEPCO’s credibility, declined an offer from TEPCO President Naomi Hirose in January to collaborate in drawing up an evacuation plan for a possible emergency at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.

“We cannot evacuate if you hide a meltdown,” the governor told Hirose during the meeting at the prefectural government building.

Izumida’s distrust of the utility runs deep.

After the Fukushima accident unfolded, Izumida confronted TEPCO officials over their previous denials over the phone that meltdowns had occurred at the plant.

The governor insisted that nuclear fuel rods must have melted, but the TEPCO officials repeated their denials by drawing a diagram of the reactors.

TEPCO apologizes for meltdown announcement delay

Tokyo Electric Power Company has apologized to a Niigata Prefectural Government panel for not realizing sooner that 3 reactors at its Fukushima Daiichi plant had melted down in March 2011.

The panel is studying the safety of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in the prefecture. Niigata has made verification of the details of the Fukushima accident a prerequisite for the plant’s restart.

TEPCO waited 2 months after the Fukushima accident to announce the meltdowns. The panel had questioned the delay. But TEPCO insisted it had no basis for making the determination.

Last month, nearly 5 years after the disaster, the utility revealed it could have declared the reactors had melted down 3 days after the accident if it had adhered to an in-house manual.

On Wednesday, Managing Executive Officer Takafumi Anegawa apologized to the panel. He said the utility should have realized and reported the existence of the manual sooner.

Panel members asked the utility why the manual went unnoticed for 5 years. They said the utility’s longstanding and false claim that it had no standards for determining a meltdown makes it an untrustworthy nuclear plant operator.

The prefectural panel says it will resume discussions after a panel of outside experts set up by TEPCO submits a report on the cause of the delay.


March 25, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment