Originally Published 2012-04-25 00:00:00 Published on Apr 25, 2012
In Japan, obtaining the consent of the people to run a nuclear power plant has now become very difficult. Prior to the Fukushima tragedy, local people's consent meant agreement of the towns and the prefecture where the plants were located.
Will Japan do without nuclear power?
Nuclear energy, which accounted for about 30% of the total electricity produced in Japan prior to the Fukushima disaster on 11 March 2011, is now at a crossroads. Following the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1956, Japan, totally devoid of natural resources, assigned a critical role to nuclear energy in its national energy strategy. Both the government and business collaborated closely in the development of a national nuclear energy structure despite the intense pacifism of the Japanese people. The global energy crises of the 1970’s accelerated the momentum for its expansion. Japan established a large number of nuclear reactors and moved in the direction of creating an independent nuclear fuel cycle for itself.

At the time of the Fukushima triple catastrophe, Japan had 54 nuclear plants that contributed to almost one third of the electricity produced in the country. But in the first week of April 2012, it was reported that of these 54 reactors, only one reactor in Tomari, Hokkaido, was in operation and the rest of them had closed down either due to regular mandatory check-ups or break downs. Even the Tomari plant is expected to close down on 5 May. It means that the country will have no nuclear plant in operation from May, 2012. With the onset of summer around the corner when the consumption of power will increase many times, how is the government going to manage the serious challenge posed by power shortages. It is calculated that the country will face an electricity shortage of 20% or more. Unless the government is able to reactivate the nuclear plants, there is a genuine concern that the people will have to face regular power cuts and load-sheddings causing great inconvenience to their normal life. Many of them recall how they faced the challenge in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy last year and would not like to pass through a similar experience again this year.

What are the difficulties for reactivating the closed reactors, most of which are now passing through stress tests? First, there is a deep popular concern caused by the observations of some investigation committees on whether the Japanese nuclear plants -- most of them quite old -- could in future withstand earthquakes of the intensity experienced on 11 March 2011. What scared the people most were the reports that the radioactive materials released on 11 March were many times more than the Hiroshima bombing. Needless to state that this intensified the radiation fear of the people. In addition, there were also reports that the damage to the nuclear plant at Fukushima was caused by the earthquake itself even before the tsunami hit it. This contested the very basis of the position of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which maintained that the reactor was crippled by the tsunami. Such reports severely undermined public trust in the safety of the nuclear reactors.

Still more serious embarrassment to the government was caused in February this year by the report of a private foundation known as Rebuild Japan Initiative, founded by a highly respected Japanese journalist Funabashi Yoichi. Its report highlighted the total lack of preparedness on the part of the government and the TEPCO. The vivid details that exposed a total lack of trust among the important players involved in the post-crisis operations such as the president of the TEPCO, the manager of the stricken Fukushima plant, and Prime Minister Kan Naoto, further deepened the public distrust in the use of nuclear energy and contributed to an anti-nuclear backlash.

In a bid to dispel the public distrust, the government requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA ) to send its experts to review the stress tests on reactors across the country. The IAEA reviewed two reactors at Oi in Fukui and expressed its belief that the reactors could survive a disaster of the magnitude of 11 March, 2011. But some members of the IAEA delegation were reported to have stated that the IAEA could not guarantee the absolute safety of the plants and that it would be entirely up to the Japanese government to decide on whether nuclear power should form an essential element of the country’s energy programme, giving due consideration to the costs and benefits involved .

It was around this time in February this year that Madarame Haruki, Japan’s well-known safety expert, came out in public to highlight the woes that afflicted the nuclear regulatory regime in Japan. In particular, he referred to the close nexus between the nuclear power companies and certain business firms, and the over eagerness of the government to generate energy without much concern for undertaking safeguard measures to protect the health of the people. These disclosures heightened public suspicion and made the reactivation of the reactors far more complicated.

The resumption of the reactors depends not merely on stress tests, but more importantly on the consent of the people. It has been noted how stress tests themselves have become a matter of intensive debate in the country. The government is eager to reactivate at least some reactors before 5 May when the last active reactor at Tomari will be closed. It is almost certain that the government will not succeed in its effort and Japan will become completely "non-nuclear" after the closure of the Tamari plant.

The idea of obtaining the consent of the people has now assumed a much broader connotation than before. Prior to the Fukushima tragedy, local people’s consent meant agreement of the towns and the prefecture where the plants were located. But the whole context has changed since then. Now local consent has also come to mean the agreement of the adjacent prefectures, towns and cities and this will pose a formidable challenge to the reactivation of the nuclear plants.

The case of Oi is a classic example which shows how the intense concerns of the people could act against the energy needs of the country. Oi is one of the three small towns in Fukui prefecture where the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) has 11 reactors

The central government, on 13 April, took a decision in favour of resuming the operations of No 3 and No 4 reactors of Oi. The following day, Edano Yukio, Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry went to Fukui to meet its governor and other officials to obtain a certain degree of understanding to the decision. But the governors of the adjacent Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka prefectures opposed the resumption of Oi’s two reactors.

Even though Oi reactors supply power to Osaka, the Osaka leaders want the KEPCO to carry out certain conditions before restarting the reactors. Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru is not satisfied merely with the stress tests. He stated, "I am opposed to restarting the Oi reactors. Just restarting them based on the results of technical stress tests is impossible." The governors of the Shiga and Kyoto prefectures have taken joint action to oppose the resumption of Oi reactors. But within Oi, there are also supporters, including the governor of the Fukui Prefecture who are aware of OI’s dependence on the revenues from the nuclear industry. About 58% of Oi’s budget comes from subsidies for hosting the nuclear reactors. Takahama, another small town about ten KM from Oi, hosts four reactors and 60% of its budget is taken care of by subsidies from the nuclear industry. One can cite several such cases where resource-scarce towns and cities host nuclear reactors due to financial compulsions.

(Prof. K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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