26 Jul 2015

Japan poised for nuclear comeback

From Insight, 8:12 am on 26 July 2015

By Cushla Norman

Japan is about to flick the switch back to nuclear power despite widespread opposition from a public still grappling with Fukushima, the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in meltdown following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in meltdown following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Photo: AFP PHOTO / HO / GROUND SELF-DEFENSE FORCES

Listen to Insight: Power struggle - Japan's Nuclear Comeback

All of the country's 54 nuclear power plants were gradually shut down after a 15 metre tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake, smashed into the Fukushima Daiichi plant causing three reactors to melt down on 11 March, 2011.

The Sendai plant on Kyushu, Japan's third largest island, was the first to get the green light to restart under stricter safety regulations. It has finished refueling its number one reactor, which is expected to fire up in mid-August, and the number two reactor is due to start in October.

Japanese man in fluoro vest stands beside stainless steel box with digital display

Yoichi Tao, the executive director of the volunteer group Resurrect Fukushima, stands beside an official radiation meter in Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture. Photo: RNZ / Cushla Norman

Before the disaster, nuclear energy accounted for about 30 percent of Japan's electricity generation, but since September 2013, when the last power plant was turned off, it has been zero. In the absence of nuclear power, Japan's utilities have ramped up the amount of gas, coal and oil they import from overseas. The Federation of Electric Power Companies, a consortium for Japan's 10 largest power producers, says the country relies on imports for 96 percent of its primary energy supply; and even if nuclear power is in the mix, dependency is still at 82 percent.

The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, a pro-nuclear lobby group, said the increase in fossil fuel use was costing the country and the environment. The imports are costing an extra  3.7 trillion yen ($NZ45 billion) a year, leading to a 20 percent jump in power bills for households and a 30 percent increase for businesses. Furthermore, annual carbon emissions have also risen by an additional 10 percent,  it said.

The environment and economics are routinely cited by nuclear power proponents as reasons for Japan getting its idle power plants back up and running. However, the catastrophe that was Fukushima still lingers in the minds of many.

Farmer stands outside in cap and check shirt

"Nuclear refugee", Mueno Kanno, who no longer lives in Iitate Village, but comes back for visits. Photo: RNZ / Cushla Norman

The disaster displaced 120,000 people - "nuclear refugees", who now live in temporary housing. Mueno Kanno, a farmer from Iitate Village, which is part of the evacuated zone, is unsure whether he will ever return home. "The nuclear accident inflicted huge psychological damage on us. Even if we think we're physically healthy, we are not so mentally," he said.

Dr Masaharu Tsubokura, a haematologist in Minamisoma, 23km away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, says the disaster has caused more psychological than physical harm.

He has screened about 100,000 people over four years and in 99 percent of children and 97 percent of adults found no cesium, a radioactive substance that is one of the main sources of internal radiation exposure. He says well-managed food control helped to stop radiation exposure from reaching chronic levels.

Dr Tsubokura says he is not able to tell if there's been a spike in the incidence of cancer following the disaster because there isn't reliable data, but he doesn't think the people of Fukushima are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Having witnessed the pain a nuclear disaster causes, Dr Tsubokura is personally against the energy source. However, he does acknowledge the good it has done in providing jobs in communities that otherwise had very little. "One old lady said, 'without nuclear power I couldn't send my son to university, without nuclear power I couldn't give food to my sons and daughters'. But without nuclear power many people will lose jobs and the social structure will change dramatically. That will kill many people, too many people," Dr Tsubokura added.

2 storey school buildings with a digger and pies of dusty earth in front

A decontaminated elementary school in Iitate Village, about 40 kilometres north-west of the crippled Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo: ( RNZ / Cushla Norman )

The Fukushima crisis has been estimated to have cost the Japanese government 11 to 12 trillion yen. A chunk of that money has been spent on decontamination work - scraping the top layer of soil off the land and replacing it with fresh sand. Japan's environment ministry is aiming to decontaminate about 25,000 hectares of land across the 11 municipalities it ordered to evacuate. The problem for the government is where to store the contaminated material.

Huge black storage bags piled more than six high stretch as away as far an the eye can see.

A temporary dump for the contaminated waste in Iitate Village. Photo: RNZ / Cushla Norman

At the moment, massive 1- 2 tonne black bags of the waste sit in piles all over the Fukushima countryside. An intermediate storage facility near the Daiichi plant is being planned, but the bags can only stay there for 30 years. Where they go after that is a mystery, but the government has promised the people of Fukushima they won't stay in their prefecture forever.

Tougher safety standards have been introduced since the disaster, such as seismic strengthening and higher sea walls. However, this isn't enough for the anti-nuclear group, Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, which is supporting residents living near power plants to challenge them in court. The group's secretary-general, Ban Hideyuki, says lawsuits will be filed against the restart of all of Japan's 43 operable power plants.

Getting approval for the first reactors at the Sendai plant on Kyushu to go back online hasn't been easy for the plant's operators, Kyushu Electric. The restart was subject to legal action by locals wanting an injunction, which was declined by a judge. However it was a different story for the Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture, western Japan, where the court ruled in favour of the residents.

The Japanese government's target is for nuclear power to generate 20 - 22 percent of the country's energy supply by 2030. However, with dozens of lawsuits in the pipeline, that goal could be in jeopardy.

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