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Time for Japan to abandon nuclear power (2)

March 9, 2017

EDITORIAL: 3/11 anniversary should compel reassessment of nuclear policy



Six years after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, which spawned a massive tsunami causing the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the reconstruction of affected areas is still far from complete.

In particular, some 80,000 people are still living as evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture, where the crippled nuclear plant is located. There are no signs of regeneration in the devastated local communities around the plant.

Meanwhile, the damages from the nuclear disaster and the costs of cleaning up the mess keep ballooning.

The harrowing situation notwithstanding, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government remains firmly determined to promote nuclear power generation as a vital “core power source” for the nation’s energy future.

Is there any reasonable case for keeping Japan reliant on atomic energy despite the catastrophic accident the nation has suffered? Is nuclear power generation really a cheap source of power as the government and the electric power industry claim?

Swelling costs

Evacuees from Namie, a town in Fukushima Prefecture, voiced their anger and anxiety during a meeting held in February at a hall in Tokyo. The entire town had to be evacuated in the wake of the disaster.

“Although we have been told that the decontamination work is over, radiation levels have not fallen enough for us to return home,” one evacuee complained at the meeting, organized by the municipal government to hold informal talks with local residents. Another demanded continued financial support from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima plant. “We have been driven out of the town by the nuclear accident. TEPCO should continue paying the housing rents of residents who cannot return.”

The evacuation order for central parts of Namie is set to be lifted at the end of March, allowing residents to return to their homes. But it is unlikely that many of the residents will actually do so. In Naraha and other areas where the evacuation orders have already been lifted, only around 10 percent of the residents have decided to live in their former homes again.

The horrible conditions inside the melted reactors are only beginning to become visible. When TEPCO recently deployed an inspection robot to look inside the No. 2 reactor at the plant, it found iron bars twisted by high temperatures and a sticky black lump. But the utility was forced to abort the inspection halfway by high levels of radiation, which would have killed a human in minutes, and sediment. No plausible idea has emerged about how to remove the melted nuclear fuel.

At the end of last year, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said the total costs of related compensation, decontamination and the decommissioning of the reactors will reach a staggering 21.5 trillion yen ($187.92 billion).

The enormous financial burden, twice as large as the previous estimate, will have to be shouldered by the public through hikes in electricity bills and taxes.

The accident has also caused certain non-economic damages that cannot be expressed by numbers, such as shattered lives and ruined communities. There is no way to measure the true scale of damage caused by the disaster.

Government sticking to pro-nuclear power policy

The government has begun to step up its policy efforts to prevent TEPCO from going under. It has announced a plan to force new electricity suppliers that have entered the retail power market following its liberalization to bear part of the burden of paying compensation for the next four decades. The costs of compensation have so far been covered by TEPCO and the other utilities operating nuclear power plants.

This new compensation-financing plan clearly reflects a policy of putting higher priority on the protection of nuclear power generation than on ensuring the benefits of the deregulation for consumers. It is designed to ease the burden on established utilities by passing part of the costs involved in nuclear power generation onto newcomers, which don’t operate nuclear plants.

This outrageous plan underscores the grim reality that nuclear power generation is no longer sustainable without strong policy support from the government.

Still, the industry ministry insists that nuclear power maintains its cost advantage over other power sources even if the money needed to deal with the consequences of the Fukushima disaster is factored in.

In making this case, the ministry refers to cost estimates announced in 2015. According to the estimates, the costs of producing electricity by building a new nuclear plant were lower than those of power generation at a thermal plant or a facility using renewable energy sources.

These estimates are used to promote the ministry’s vision for the nation’s energy supply in fiscal 2030, under which some 20 percent of total power consumption will be covered by nuclear power generation.

But a raft of questions have been raised about these estimates. Experts critical of nuclear power generation say the cost estimates are based on the assumption that nuclear plants can long be operated without any serious trouble. Estimates based on the records of past operations and actual costs required show nuclear power generation is more expensive, they say. The costs of constructing nuclear power plants have also increased globally after the Fukushima accident, they point out.

The ministry’s cost estimates are also based on many other questionable assumptions. There is no established technology for the envisioned nuclear fuel recycling system, for instance. There are many variables concerning the process of establishing the system that could radically change the math.

Progress in the efforts to select the final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste has been glacial, leaving the crucial issue unsolved for many years.

These are issues that are also related to the existing nuclear power plants.

While upholding the policy of promoting atomic energy, the successive governments have been putting off tackling these and other sticky issues or taking stopgap measures at best.

This approach has reached its limitations.

Plan to phase out nuclear power needed

This happens to be a year in which the government is scheduled to make its regular, fundamental review of the nation's energy policy.

The government should take this opportunity to make rigorous fresh assessments of the costs, risks and advantages of various power sources including nuclear energy and incorporate them into the new policy. It is vital to invite opponents of the government’s nuclear power policy as well as proponents to take part in the work to ensure that the issues will be discussed from diverse perspectives.

Outside Japan, Germany and Taiwan have decided to phase out nuclear power generation. Some other industrial nations are shutting down nuclear plants ahead of schedule and pursuing goals to reduce their dependence on atomic energy.

For a society that places a premium on safety, nuclear power generation is becoming a hot potato because of many unsolved problems concerning accidents and nuclear waste.

The trend was set by the Fukushima disaster. The introduction of stricter safety standards and resultant cost increases have led to the current financial crisis at Toshiba Corp.

What the Abe administration should do is face up to the grim realities of nuclear power generation and pay serious attention to public concerns about plans to restart offline reactors. It then needs to make serious efforts to work out a specific plan to steadily lower Japan’s dependence on nuclear power.

The prevailing logic of the closed community of people and organizations with vested interests in promoting nuclear power generation and the safety myth they successfully peddled set the stage for what transpired in Fukushima.

The government needs to look back on the six painful years following the nuclear disaster and embark on remaking its energy policy into a more reasonable and sustainable one.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 9




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