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Gov't should not interfere with the NRA

March 12, 2013

Editorial: Japan's nuclear crisis the starting point for new energy policies




Two years after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, some 3,500 subcontract workers press on with efforts to clean up the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant under the threat of radiation.

The crippled frame of the building housing the plant's No. 3 reactor is still exposed following the hydrogen explosion that ripped through the building, and radiation levels are high.

The embankment next to the plant's No. 4 reactor was carved away by the massive tsunami on March 11, 2011, and a truck on the coastal side of the plant remains on its side. It is expected to take four decades to decommission the plant and there is seemingly no end to work to bring the disaster under control.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated his party will revise a pledge by the former Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration to eliminate all nuclear power plants in Japan by the 2030s. Calls have increased, notably from the economic world, to restart nuclear power plants at an early stage, but we cannot allow backtracking on a zero-nuclear policy. We must remember that the Fukushima nuclear crisis is the starting point in a new approach to the nation's nuclear energy policy.

At the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, a massive amount of water continues to be injected into the reactors to cool down melted nuclear fuel. Some 30 to 40 tons of contaminated water is expelled from the reactor buildings every hour, and transferred to storage tanks on the grounds of the nuclear plant. The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), plans to build more tanks, but the vessels are expected to be filled in two years.

In the building housing the No. 4 reactor, whose roof was blown apart in a hydrogen explosion, a pool containing over 1,500 spent nuclear fuel rods remains exposed. Work to remove these rods is slated to begin in November, and the rods are due to be placed in temporary storage at the plant, but no decision has been reached over what to do with them after that.

Problems like these represent nuclear power's main trade-off. It is impossible, when running a nuclear power plant, to sidestep the problem of how to dispose of radioactive waste.

The Abe administration says it will retain a national policy to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. But the nuclear fuel cycle, under which fuel is reprocessed and used once again in nuclear power plants, has ground to a standstill.

The nuclear reprocessing plant being constructed by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, is supposed to be completed in October, but it has faced a spate of problems, causing its construction to be extended 19 times. In addition, the Monju fast breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, which is supposed to use plutonium extracted from spent fuel, has been stopped due to operation problems.

In light of technical demands, safety issues and cost, Japan should draw the curtains on its nuclear fuel cycle.

The disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste involves burying it in a stable geological layer hundreds of meters underground. But it takes tens of thousands of years for the radioactivity of such waste to drop to a safe level, and it remains uncertain whether any geological layer can actually be guaranteed as stable.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan is seeking a final disposal site for the nation's nuclear waste, but so far no local bodies have come forward and agreed to accept it. As a result, spent nuclear fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants continues to pile up. Japan should quickly seek to reduce its dependence on nuclear power to prevent the burden of nuclear waste being passed on to future generations.

In spite of all this, it appears that the Abe administration is trying to turn the clock back on the nation's nuclear power and energies policies to the period before the March 2011 quake and tsunami that triggered the nuclear crisis. Symbolic of this stance is its selection of members on panels handling energy policies.

The Coordination Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, a consultative body to the minister of economy, trade and industry, is to discuss the nation's mid- to long-term energy policy. Under the previous DPJ administration, seven of the 24 members of the fundamental issues committee, which performed the same role, were clear opponents of nuclear power. But now the number of committee members has been cut to 15, leaving just two opposing dependence on nuclear power. Meanwhile the governor of an area hosting a nuclear power plant has been added to the panel's ranks.

The panel operating under the previous DPJ administration engaged in fierce debate in 33 heated sessions. The discussions were open to the public, which heightened interest in the issue. The members failed to reach a unified decision, but the target that emerged following national debate was to eliminate nuclear power in Japan by the 2030s.

Of course, the government administration has now changed hands, but still, the public will not agree to a sudden scrapping of this goal.

The Central Environment Council, a consultative body to the minister of the environment mulling environment-related policies such as the nation's response to global warming, previously accommodated three members in favor of reducing dependence on nuclear power, but after Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took over from the DPJ, their appointments were revoked.

The Abe administration is seriously mistaken if it thinks it can create the impression that its policy changes have been approved simply by removing opponents of nuclear power from government panels.

In his policy speech to the Diet last month, Abe stated, "Under the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), we will foster a new culture of safety. ... After doing so we will restart nuclear power plants where safety has been confirmed."

If nuclear power plants are allowed to be restarted for economical reasons and to secure a supply of electricity, safety is an utmost priority. The NRA is to set new safety standards by July, incorporating tough measures such as requiring the latest safety standards to be applied to existing nuclear power plants.

Proponents of nuclear power have heaped criticism on the conclusions drawn from earthquake fault surveys that the NRA is conducting at nuclear power plants, as well as on the way the surveys are being conducted. But let us not forget that it was the LDP, during its stint as an opposition party, which called for a high level of independence in the agency. The current administration must not disdain the severity of regulations or interfere in the NRA's judgments on safety.

Abe has stated that over a period of three years, the government will provide support to spur innovation in developing alternative forms of energy. Efforts to make renewable energy the key to recovery have been witnessed in areas hit hardest by the quake and tsunami disaster. We call on the government to develop nuclear power and energy policies truly focusing on the public, while remaining mindful of the accomplishments stemming from such efforts.

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