Editorial: One year after the disaster

Nuclear power

On March 3 a symposium on rebuilding the Tohoku area titled “With Fukushima” was held in the city of Aizu Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture. The atmosphere at the event, which included some joking, was congenial, but a hush fell over the audience when Tetsuo Yamaori, a religion scholar with ties to Iwate Prefecture, said, “Our society has turned a blind eye to the risks and the victims of modern civilization.”

The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant resulted in a tremendous number of victims. More than 100,000 evacuees were torn from their homes and from their hometowns. About 3,000 people continue to work at the nuclear power plant to bring the situation under control with no end in sight.

The myth of the safety of nuclear power has been completely shattered. That is why, in the wake of the accident, nuclear power plants throughout Japan have been forced to shut down once periodic inspections were undertaken. Only two reactors remain in operation – one in Hokkaido and one in Niigata Prefecture – and they are due for their periodic inspections next month.

Resuming operations already decided on?

At this point there are growing calls from Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and others, primarily in industry, for the reactors to be put back into operation. They say things like: “If there’s a power shortage we won’t be able to operate” and “This will accelerate the hollowing out of industry.”

After the accident we heard the same sorts of concerns expressed over and over again. Can we get through the summer, when the demand for power increases with the use of air conditioning? Then we heard that we’d have trouble getting through the winter. Fortunately, spring is coming to Japan.

That we have come this far is certainly the result of the great efforts of households and businesses to save electricity. Nevertheless we are returning to a society without nuclear power for the first time in 50 years. To what extent do we need to undertake efforts to save electricity and to generate power at home? To what extent do we need to put up with inconvenience? How much rise in electricity costs, among other costs, will we be burdened with due to the nuclear accident?

As a step toward ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, the government must clearly demonstrate what an ideal society should be using a standard that is in line with the feelings of the people. Whether or not it is necessary to restart operations at the nuclear power plants is a matter to be debated after that.

Most importantly, after having witnessed such tremendous destruction, we can’t help but feel that something is wrong with the shortsighted argument that the reactors must be restarted because there is a shortage of electricity. The two matters should be considered separately.

Hasty government

In the first place, neither of the committees formed by the government and the Diet to investigate the accident has submitted its final report. The causes of the accident have not even been identified, and it is not clear where the responsibility lies.

Nevertheless, preparations are being made to resume operations at nuclear power plants: namely, the stress tests that then Prime Minister Naoto Kan decided to introduce last July in order to evaluate the safety of the reactors. Yukio Edano, minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, has expressed his intention to seek the approval of the communities where the plants are located saying, “If the safety of the reactors can be confirmed, I would like them to allow nuclear power to be used for the time being.”

Kansai Electric Company’s Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture seems to be regarded as the one that will open the door to the restart of operations. Its inspection has already been concluded, and confirmation of the results by the Nuclear Safety Commission is expected to be completed this month.

What must not be overlooked is the statement by Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, who said that “the first evaluation was inadequate as a safety check.” In fact, in the U.S. and Europe stress tests have apparently never been used as the basis for deciding whether or not to resume operations at nuclear power plants.

A report that was recently compiled by a private accident investigation commission highlighted the functional failure of the government bodies in charge of nuclear energy, including the Office of the Prime Minister and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which should play a leading role in crisis management. The level of the people’s trust has hit bottom. Merely trying to get the agreement of local communities without restoring the foundation of their trust is just putting the cart before the horse.

Building more plants impossible

The Democratic Party administration is supposed to be sustaining the effort to end Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy that was launched by former Prime Minister Kan. The administration must carefully explain to the people why restarting the reactors at nuclear power plants is not a contradiction of this policy.

In this regard, the proposed revision of the laws related to nuclear reactors that has been submitted to the Diet, which clearly states that the length of time nuclear power plants can operate should be limited to “40 years in principle,” shows a certain amount of vision. The people feel strongly that “building more nuclear power plants is impossible.” First and foremost, we must not accumulate any more spent nuclear fuel because there is no place to take it.

The goal of ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power as soon as possible should be clearly specified by working out exactly where renewable energy ranks. The path to this goal will not open easily, but Japan must call forth its knowledge and ability as a leader in science and technology.

We can never again allow a society in which people gobble up electricity while forcing others to pay for their indulgence. Rights are accompanied by both obligations and responsibilities.

(Originally published on March 9, 2012)