Reactor approval watershed for Japan′s nuclear energy industry | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 29.10.2014
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Reactor approval watershed for Japan's nuclear energy industry

The decision to permit a local energy utility to restart its nuclear plant has been welcomed by the Japanese government and industry, but environmental groups are angry that local people's concerns are being ignored.

When the 26 members of the city assembly of Satsumasendai voted on Tuesday, October 28, on the deeply contentious issue of restarting the local nuclear plant, they were aware that the entire nation was watching them. The national government had been studiously silent in the run-up to the vote, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted the local assembly to vote in favor of permitting Kyushu Electric Power Co. to resume the plant's operations.

Experts say that the yes vote sets a precedent that other local authorities can point to when they weigh the pros and cons of permitting utilities to power up nuclear facilities in their districts.

Japanese industry, suffering under the weight of higher energy costs as Japan has been forced to import vast amounts of fossil fuels to make up for the loss of nuclear energy, will be delighted that they can once again begin to compete.

Power utilities, which have lost billions of yen in the more than three years and seven months since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was crippled by the magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake and the massive tsunami that it triggered, will have breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Local government officials and nuclear experts inspecting a monitoring well where high levels of radioactive materials were detected at Tokyo Electric Power's (TEPCO) Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture (Photo: JAPAN POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost four years ago, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was crippled by the magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake

Rising costs

Members of the public concerned at rising costs - particularly the soaring price of electricity as the winter months approach - also welcomed the move. But others are far less pleased at the news that 19 members of the assembly voted in favor, four voted against, and three abstained.

The tragedy at Fukushima, where hundreds of thousands of local people are still unable to return to their homes in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the plant because radiation levels are too high, shows that nuclear energy is not the answer to the power needs of a country that is so prone to seismic activity.

"They are still operating in a pre-Fukushima mindset," Aileen Mioko-Smith, an activist with Kyoto-based Green Action Japan, told DW.

"They have taken this decision to restart the reactors no matter what, and it was clear to me before Tuesday that they would vote yes," she said. "For them, it is about money and pressure from the utility and the government."

Local jobs and money

"The assembly was worried about jobs for local people because the plant is such an important local employer, but also because of all the financial assistance that they receive as a host community for a nuclear plant," she added. "That runs into millions, and they were afraid to give it up."

Smith said members of her organization had visited the town and spoken with local people, and that they got the clear impression that a good number of the 100,000 residents of Satsumasendai were "deeply concerned" about the plant restarting.

Environmental groups are pinning their hopes on opposition from three neighboring towns that have protested at having no say in the decision. By law, these communities have no say in the decision - but with the devastating impact that the contamination from Fukushima had on nearby towns and villages, they are insisting that they be given a voice.

The prefecture of Kagoshima also has a say before the reactors return to life, but Smith admits that the Satsumasendai assembly's decision does "set a precedent that others might follow."

More yes votes

And while Tom O'Sullivan, an independent energy consultant and founder of Tokyo-based Mathyos Japan, also believes the decision could be a catalyst for other yes votes. He says that political considerations mean it will not be well into 2015 before the first reactors are started once again. Plus, he points out, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a number of political problems to deal with at the moment.

"His previous minister with responsibility for the nuclear issue had to resign after a matter of days because of a financial scandal and it looks like her replacement, Yoichi Miyazawa, has similar problems," O'Sullivan told DW.

Miyazawa has admitted that he possesses 600 shares in Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima plant which has been harshly criticized for its lax management of the plant. That investment has raised questions about the impartiality of a minister tasked with overseeing Japan's energy sector.

A further issue, both for the national government and the operators, is that as many as half of the 48 reactors across the country will never be restarted because it is too technically complex or expensive to bring them up to the enhanced safety standards that are now required.

And the reasons for those new standards are clear; on the same day as the Satsumasendai vote, a fire broke out at the Genkai nuclear plant. Staff tackled the blaze and the operator said there were no injuries and radiation was not released.

An anti-nuclear protester wearing a protective suit and mask holds a placard reading 2011 Fukushima near the parliament building in Tokyo March 10, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)

Environmental groups are angry at the Satsumasendai assembly's decision

Natural disaster

More dramatically, the Japan Meteorological Agency has this week issued a warning that there may be an eruption of Mount Ioyama - just 60 miles from the Satsumasendai reactors - one month after the unexpected eruption of Mount Ontake caused the deaths of more than 50 hikers. If a volcano affected a reactor, Japan could be subject to a disaster on the same scale as Fukushima, environmental groups warn.

"There is still a good deal of reluctance among the public to restarting the reactors," O'Sullivan said.

"This is because of declining demand from industry, a shrinking population and that very Japanese ability to cut back on consumption at a time of crisis," he added. "The utilities are already under a huge amount of financial pressure and this just makes it worse. For them, they want a decision and they want it soon."