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Flawed arguments

Jun. 12, 2012


Editorial: PM's flawed arguments for Oi reactor restarts play on fear, hobble




Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's June 8 news conference on the restart of reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture appealed neither to our reason nor our hearts. The message he was trying to convey -- that the Oi plant reactors are safe and need to be brought back online -- was plainly aimed not at the Japanese people, but at Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, whose okay is needed to flip the switch.

This approach cannot possibly win the support of the public, and there are a number of serious flaws with it. First of all, Noda stated that "accidents can be prevented even if the Oi plant is hit with an earthquake or tsunami on the scale of the one that struck Fukushima," and "even if the plant lost power, this would not result in damage to the reactor cores."

To begin with, the greatest lesson we've learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is that no matter how thorough preparations may be, accidents can still happen. Nevertheless, Noda has gone back to the now broken premise that "accidents can't happen" as a way to push forward with the Oi reactor restarts. In other words, the government has returned to the "safety myth" that underpinned nuclear power in Japan before the Fukushima disaster.

We must also take issue with using "Fukushima-like" as a parameter for defining "guaranteed safety." Whatever shape the next accident takes, it certainly won't be exactly the same as the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Internationally, the safety of nuclear power is generally based on five "layers" of protection. The first three layers are preventative, while the fourth and fifth assume the occurrence of a major disaster, and call for protecting people and the environment from emissions of radioactive materials.

Some portion of recommended anti-quake work, such as base-isolation to insulate buildings against seismic vibrations, has not been carried out at the Oi plant, operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. This begs the question of how the fourth and fifth layers of protection are to be implemented in case of an accident. The prime minister has a duty to explain this thoroughly to the Japanese people.

Furthermore, Noda's statement that "if all of Japan's nuclear reactors remain idle, Japanese society will not function" is also flawed. The government has already said it is planning to break the country's dependence on nuclear power, and is putting a great deal of time and effort into deliberations on what sort of energy mix Japan should be aiming for.

Even though these discussions have yet to reach a conclusion, Noda went on to say that "the livelihoods and daily lives of the Japanese people cannot be sustained if reactors are only restarted for the summer," and "from the energy security point of view, nuclear power is very important." These statements, we believe, leave true national debate on this issue behind in the dust.

Of course lives could be at stake if Japan is hit with sudden blackouts from a lack of electricity. Industry will also be affected if planned blackouts continue this year. This is a weighty problem indeed.

However, we've all known for more than a year that the country needs measures to deal with summer power shortfalls, and both the government and Kansai Electric have been negligent in developing those measures. And though these parties ought to be reflecting on and apologizing for their negligence, all we see them doing is fanning the flames of anxiety.

There is a major push on now to save electricity, cut down on peak usage, and create flexibility in the power system. To force the restart of the Oi plant reactors even amid all these efforts would be to crush the fragile bud of energy reform now growing in society.

Prime Minister Noda derided anti-restart arguments as "emotional." Anti-nuclear accident measures, however, are hardly a sentimental project. Is it not those pressing for reactor restarts even as the Fukushima disaster rages on that are the "emotional" ones?


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