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Nuclear safety

Julian Ryall, TokyoMay 23, 2013

Japan's nuclear regulators and an atomic energy company are locked in a battle over the safety of the Tsuruga plant. Environmentalists say it is a test case for the future of nuclear energy in the country.

(Photo: dpa - Bildfunk)
Tsuruga nuclear plantImage: picture alliance/dpa

Twenty-six months after the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, virtually all of Japan's nuclear reactors remain off-line.

Caused by a magnitude-9 earthquake that triggered a colossal tsunami, the crisis at Fukushima has shaken public faith in what was previously considered a safe and virtually limitless source of energy for Japan, and forced the government to reconsider the ability of other reactors to withstand another major natural disaster.

But the 48 idle reactors are not earning any money for the power companies that built them when nuclear energy was seen as the remedy for a nation imported virtually all its energy.

That is why the position of the Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA) over the future of the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture is so important, the environmental groups say.

Active fault identified

After an extensive study, a panel of experts appointed by the NRA has concluded that an active fault line lies immediately beneath the No. 2 reactor at Tsuruga and that it should be decommissioned at the first opportunity.

The No. 3 reactor building at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan (Photo: EPA/TEPCO/ HANDOUT)
Two years after the tsunami, Japan is anticipating an even worse disasterImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The study into the seismic resilience of the plant was only ordered by the government in the aftermath of Fukushima and the fault had not been detected before the 1,160 megawatt reactor went into operation in February 1987.

The No. 1 reactor at the site was the oldest commercial reactor in Japan before it was shut down for a routine safety inspection in January 2011, but has never been given the green light to restart operations after the Fukushima disaster. Japan Atomic Power Co. (JAPC) also had plans to open two further reactors at the plant in the coming years, but both those projects are on hold.

Announcing its recommendation for the No. 1 reactor, Kunihiko Shimazaki, the NRA commissioner, told DW, "It is lucky there has been no accident at the reactor."

A spokesman for the organization insisted that the NRA had followed objective and scientific rules before reaching its decision and that it would stand by its findings - but he did admit that pressure was being applied to the agency.

As soon as the NRA's decision was announced, Yasuo Hamada, the president of JAPC called a press conference in which he attacked the agency for not giving his company the chance to explain its position on the matter. Hamada also claimed that the panel's decision was not based on objective data and facts.

'Inappropriate action'

The decision is "really an inappropriate action taken by the regulator, which exercises public power," he said.

JAPC insists that the fault is not active and that it has hired its own experts to compile a report that will counter the NRA's findings and permit the company to restart the reactor.

"Our company has an opposite opinion and we hope that before the final decision is announced at the end of June, our position will be clear," a spokesman for the company told DW.

If the agency sticks to its guns and is backed up by the government, then JAPC will be obliged to permanently shut the facility down and take a huge financial hit.

But the industry as a whole, as well as many politicians whose constituencies are home to nuclear plants and have built close relationships with those firms in return for permitting the construction of reactors are still fighting their corner.

Anti-nuclear protesters attend a rally in Tokyo March 10, 2013, a day before the second-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and set off a nuclear crisis (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)
Some Japanese residents believe the situation is still not under controlImage: Reuters

In March, dozens of members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party set up a group to demand the resumption of the nation's nuclear reactors on the grounds that ensuring a stable supply of energy is crucial to economic growth.

The Yomiuri newspaper, in a May 16 editorial, also sided with the industry and questioned the expert panel's "insufficient grounds" for determining that a fault exists beneath the reactor and criticised the panel chairman.

"We have to say Shimazaki has been chairing the panel with a lack of fairness and based on predetermined conclusions," the editorial stated. "When it comes to the fault beneath the No. 2 reactor, JAPC insists it is not an active fault, as it has been inactive for 120,000 to 130,000 years."

The editorial went on to say: "The operator came to the conclusion based on an analysis of soil in the fault, and has been beefing up its efforts to conduct backup research. The NRA should not reach a hasty conclusion at a time when JAPC has been continuing its own research."

Utilities' own research

But that is exactly part of the problem that afflicted the nuclear energy industry before March 2011 and directly contributed to the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima plant, says Hajime Matsukubo, of The Citizens' Nuclear Information Center.

"In the past, the government allowed the utilities to carry out research to determine if one of their reactors was on a site with an active fault," he said. "Predictably, they never said there were any dangers and were giving permission to go ahead. Now, after Fukushima, we can see just how dangerous that policy was," he said.

"The Japanese people do not agree that the nuclear reactors should be restarted and a recent opinion poll in the Asahi newspaper showed that 70 percent of people are opposed to nuclear energy."

The NRA is coming under "huge pressure" for the company to be permitted to restart the Tsuruga reactor - from the company, politicians, media that support the government's position on nuclear power and - quietly - the ministries that oversee energy and trade and industry policies.

"All we want is for them to accept the scientific findings that there is an active and potentially dangerous fault beneath that reactor," Matsukubo said.