Editorial: Ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power

The year 2011 revealed to us how unconscious we had been in fixing so firmly on the “safety myth” of nuclear power, believing that “nuclear energy is safe.”

This myth led us to assume that, in the event of any accident, the walls of the nuclear reactors could contain the radioactive substances brewing inside. And yet the system of multiple protection measures at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, a system dubbed the “five-layered wall,” failed without a fight in the wake of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake in March.

Nuclear fuel melted and leaked from the containment vessels. Explosions rocked the reactor buildings. It is estimated that a substantial amount of radioactive cesium 137 was released into the environment, a quantity equivalent to the amount of cesium 137 emitted by almost 170 atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima.

Report filed by government committee

Even now, nearly 90,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture are forced to continue living as evacuees. Among them, it is believed that about 60,000 will be spending the New Year’s outside the prefecture.

How on earth did they come to be so completely deprived of the peaceful lives they had once known? Light must be shed, from beginning to end, on the cause of the accident at the nuclear power plant and the measures undertaken in the wake of the disaster. Based on these facts, lessons must be learned in order to prevent a recurrence of this catastrophe.

The government committee charged with investigating the accident, which is playing a key role in establishing the facts of the accident, filed its interim report yesterday. Previously, TEPCO had concluded that the disaster was triggered by a tsunami so massive it was beyond the scope of all assumptions. The government committee, however, maintains that TEPCO’s conclusion is “merely a conjecture” and implied that the disaster may been prompted by the earthquake as well.

TEPCO has acknowledged that its countermeasures in the event of a tsunami were inadequate, but it turned a blind eye to the situation due to, among other factors, the steep cost, which might have amounted to tens of billions of yen. The interim report highlights this problem, proposing grimly: “Even if the incidence is low, the possibility of disaster must be seen as a real possibility.”

Moreover, if the equipment used to safeguard the plant was damaged by the tremors before the tsunami even struck, this poses a grave problem. It would mean that the quake-resistance standards for all 54 nuclear power plants across the nation must be reviewed from scratch. Such circumstances would make the discussion which involves restarting operations at idle plants moot.

The report reveals that the workers who remained at the power station in Fukushima firmly believed that a worst-case scenario in which the nuclear reactors might explode, one after another, was a distinct possibility. Their words correspond with the statement made by former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who said he had assumed at one point that the nation would be facing a mass evacuation of some 30 million people from the Tokyo metropolitan area. Scenarios of this kind suggest that nuclear disasters can affect areas far beyond the location of a power plant.

The perspective of those suffering due to the disaster

Since taking office, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has reiterated that “there will be no rebirth of Japan without the rebirth of Fukushima.” If this is truly his belief, then the Japanese government must look squarely at the path that Fukushima Prefecture is now taking.

The Fukushima Prefectural Assembly has adopted a proposal, with over 90 percent voting in favor, to decommission all 10 nuclear reactors located within the prefecture. The prefectural government then worked out a policy for the future in which the prefecture would no longer rely upon subsidies involving nuclear energy.

One city government has articulated a plan that will not depend on nuclear power, while a town council has called off its attempt to bring a new nuclear plant within its boundaries. Most of the residents in the areas affected by the accident seem to share the same sentiments: “The safety myth has collapsed” and “It’s no longer possible to coexist with nuclear power plants.”

If the current government speaks of the rebirth of Fukushima along with the rebirth of the nation, it has no choice but to continue promoting an end to Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, a position inherited from the previous administration.

Mr. Noda, however, has repeatedly stated that “the central government will make a final decision” based on the outcome of the stress test, an evaluation to determine the safety conditions of the nation’s nuclear power plants. No roadmap or clear statement with regard to ending the nation’s reliance on nuclear energy can be seen in the draft of the fiscal 2012 budget or in other documents.

On the contrary, the government has made moves which hint at an aggressive effort to restart plant operations. These moves include continuing Japan’s exports of nuclear energy technology to nations overseas and the declaration made the other day that the nuclear crisis is now “over.”

But in the affected areas, the decontamination work to reduce radiation levels has just begun. And the mountains of mud and ash, along with the wooden debris that cannot be burned, pile up day by day with no disposal site.

The residents of these areas naturally feel anger toward the central government, lamenting, “The government brought about this disaster. In these circumstances, how can it declare that the disaster is over?”

Yesterday the central government indicated that it will redraw the evacuation zones into three areas, in line with radiation levels. The local residents, though, appear to be balking at the idea, saying, “Making new evacuation zones might divide us again,” and “Decontamination is the priority now.”

Acknowledging concern felt by local residents

The perspective of the people of Fukushima Prefecture must not be dismissed. Their point of view could become the burden of any area that might be affected by a similar nuclear crisis.

Tottori Prefecture and the cities of Sakaiminato and Yonago are adjacent to the Shimane nuclear power plant. These areas had long been kept at arm’s length, but they have recently concluded a safety agreement with the Chugoku Electric Power Company, the operator of the plant. Although some requests made by the local governments, including prior consent to expand the facility, have not been stipulated, the agreement serves as a first step toward acknowledging the concern felt by the local residents. This development should be pushed so that the people’s voice can be heard and further steps are made to ultimately end Japan’s reliance on nuclear power.

(Originally published on December 27, 2011)