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Nuclear revival?

Julian Ryall, TokyoFebruary 11, 2014

Emboldened by the election of a pro-nuclear governor of Tokyo, Japan's utilities and national government are setting their sights on having 10 reactors operational by the summer.

A general view of Mihama nuclear power station No 1 reactor (R), No 2 reactor (C) and No 3 reactor (L) which is run by Kansai Electric Power Co, on March 8, 2012 in Mihama, Japan. Only two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are online nearly 12 months after last year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Image: Getty Images

The Japanese government is scheduled to release its new basic energy plan before the end of March, with a document expected to identify nuclear energy as a key component of the national energy mix.

The only problem with this commitment to atomic energy is the fact that every single one of the 48 nuclear reactors across the country is offline at present, with utility companies awaiting the approval of local authorities and communities before they can resume the generation of power.

On March 11, the nation will mark the three-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the worst natural disaster to befall the country in living memory and trigger a devastating tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station.

Horrified at the crisis at the nuclear plant - a situation ranked second in history behind the Chernobyl disaster in a nation that previously prided itself on the safety of its industrial sector - environmental activists and members of the public have attempted to block the resumption of nuclear power generation.

They argue that, given the Fukushima crisis, it would be irresponsible to return to atomic energy in a nation so prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters and that the utilities are simply not able to guarantee that a similar accident will not happen again in the future.

New governor, new attitude

But the national government has sensed a change in public opinion since the election of Yoichi Masuzoe as governor of Tokyo on Sunday, February 9, largely on a platform of restarting the nation's reactors.

Newly appointed Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe (3rd-R) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (3rd-L) while ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) executives clap their hands at the National Diet in Tokyo on February 10, 2014 one day after Masuzoe won the Tokyo gubernatorial election.
Government-backed candidate Yoichi Masuzoe (3rd-R) won Tokyo's election for governor on February 9Image: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Masuzoe had the support of the national government throughout his campaign, with Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, losing no time after the announcement of electoral results to congratulate the victorious candidate. "It was good that a person facing in the same direction as the government was elected," he told reporters.

The government believes that if the support that Masuzoe received can be replicated across the country, then a minimum of 10 reactors should be granted permission to return to operational status in the coming months.

At present, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA) is carrying out extensive studies on the state of the 48 reactors to ensure they meet the new safety standards introduced after the Fukushima disaster.

The agency, the utilities and the companies that built the plants say the examinations are exhaustive and will ensure that the likelihood of another nuclear crisis is minimized.

'Not up to scratch'

But environmental groups dispute that claim."Their tests and standards are simply not up to scratch," Aileen Mioko-Smith, of Kyoto-based Green Action Japan, told DW.

"The industry and the regulators say they have learned the lessons of Fukushima and that they will be installing new emergency equipment, such as better sea walls and so on, but the companies have been given permission to defer implementation for several years," she points out. "What happens if we have an earthquake sooner than that?"

A general view of Mihama nuclear power station No 1 reactor (R), No 2 reactor (C) and No 3 reactor (L) which is run by Kansai Electric Power Co, on March 8, 2012 in Mihama, Japan. Only two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are online nearly 12 months after last year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Image: Getty Images

Mioko-Smith is also deeply critical of the NRA, which she says does not question the utilities. "At the beginning, it seemed as if they were being very firm with the power companies, insisting that they meet the new safety standards, but we have had lots of closed-door meetings ever since and the NRA has emerged as having completely capitulated," she claimed.

"This rush to get the reactors back online ignores the reality of the looming dangers," she said. "Incredibly, the authorities have spent much more time looking for ways to restart the reactors than they have on dealing with the discharges of contaminated water into the ocean from Fukushima, and that's a result of political pressure."

Nevertheless, the government appears intent on overcoming any remaining obstacles to restarting the reactors ahead of the rising demand traditionally witnessed in the country during the summer months. Tokyo is also aiming to reduce the amount of money being spent on importing vast amounts of fossil fuels to feed the Japanese industry and households.

Energy experts from around the world insist that nuclear power remains the best option for a country that has negligible energy resources of its own. And, they say, it is quite safe.

The fuel of the future?

In contrast to what has been portrayed as one of the worst industrial catastrophes to befall mankind, Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Oxford, argues that what happened at Fukushima actually demonstrates the inherent safety of nuclear energy and underlines his contention that it should be the fuel of the future.

"The science of the problem is well understood and means that the fear people have of nuclear energy is completely unjustified," said Dr. Allison, a member of Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information (SARI) and author of "Radiation and Reason: The impact of science on a culture of fear."

"The public reaction to the Fukushima situation has raised questions not only about radiation, but also about public trust - and I believe that is the more serious problem that we have to deal with," he said.

"There have been no deaths from radiation from Fukushima. What we have seen is a worldwide panic caused by uninformed public fear," he argued. "We have an extraordinarily beneficial relationship with nuclear energy and instead of shunning it, we should embrace it," Allison added. "There are lots of things that threaten our lives, but nuclear energy is not one of them."