Japan still divided over nuclear power after Fukushima


The prospect of power shortages in Japan this summer, of stifling city apartments and manufacturing slowdowns, has divided a country still reeling from the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl over whether to restart some of its idled reactors.

The government contends that the country can’t afford not to resume nuclear energy production.

The last operating nuclear reactor in Japan, on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, will be taken off line May 5 for stress tests and safety improvements. Japan’s 53 other reactors were shut down after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, which killed thousands of people. The inundation damaged cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi power complex, causing three reactor meltdowns, mass evacuations, food and farmland contamination, and profound distrust of the nuclear power industry.

Japan generated 30% of its electricity from nuclear plants before the disaster 13 months ago, and energy companies are now warning consumers and industries that they could face a doubling of their power bills if the country continues to import fossil fuels to replace the lost nuclear output.

Pocketbook concerns may do little to boost public confidence in resuming nuclear generation, though, if sentiments expressed in a recent poll published by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper persist through the summer, when urban Japanese are accustomed to turning on the air conditioning.

Nearly 80% of 3,000 Japanese surveyed by the Japan Assn. for Public Opinion Research said they wanted to get rid of nuclear plants for good, although most said a gradual phasing out would be acceptable to avoid power shortages. Those supportive of restarting some reactors in the short term outnumbered those opposed by more than 2 to 1.

Sensing an opportunity to rid the island nation of nuclear power, Greenpeace Japan has stepped up its lobbying against government plans to restart two reactors at Ohi in Fukui prefecture. The environmental watchdog group has reminded wary Japanese of the price they paid in lives, health and security in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns, the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union.

“Japan is practically nuclear free, and the impact on daily life is invisible,” Junichi Sato, Greenpeace Japan’s executive director said recently, disputing assertions that there is a need to restart reactors.

Economy and Industry Minister Yukio Edano signaled the start of a hearts-and-minds campaign this week when he said the two Ohi reactors have “more or less” met the demanding safety standards recommended by Japanese and international nuclear experts after Fukushima.

An inspection team of the International Atomic Energy Agency visited the Ohi power complex in January and concluded last month that the upgrades made at the reactors were “generally consistent with IAEA safety standards,” said team leader James Lyons, director of the Vienna-based agency’s facility safety division.

Edano has called on the governor of Fukui, Issei Nishikawa, to endorse the restart. Fukui is relatively small but strategic in the power network as it is home to 13 reactors, and Ohi’s output is vital to providing reliable electricity supplies to Osaka and Kyoto.

Nishikawa has yet to take a side on the restart issue, but Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto lashed out at the government for declaring the Ohi plant safe without first getting a go-ahead from its own nuclear regulators, who have purportedly been given more responsibility for reactor safety by legislation spurred by last year’s disaster. Hashimoto told Japan’s NHK network Monday that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda would provoke a government crisis if he forged ahead with the Ohi restart in spite of the strong fear still driving popular resistance to returning to nuclear power reliance.

The government doesn’t technically need local officials’ support to restart the reactors, which would take about 10 days to resume supplying power, according to the Kansai Electric utility, which operates the Ohi complex. But public skepticism about nuclear safety remains high, as does mistrust of a government and nuclear regulatory industry that downplayed the severity of the Fukushima catastrophe in its early days.

“People are dissatisfied with the nuclear industry. They’ve lost trust in it,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a systems engineering professor at USC who has closely followed Japan’s legislative and technical responses to the Fukushima crisis.

But the nuclear industry is deeply integrated in the local economies where it operates, providing employment and energy as well as funding for schools, medical facilities and recreation, Meshkati said.

“At the end of the day Japan doesn’t have any choice but to resume production,” he said.

Those arguments about need may do little to quell fear among Japanese that the industry poses too many risks for such a densely populated country.

The daily Mainichi Shimbun in a weekend editorial urged more thorough safety checks.

“It is hard to understand,” the editorial said, “why the government is in such haste to restart the reactors.”