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Sunday, June 3, 2012
Quickstep to restarting reactors
The union of nine local governments in Kansai — the Shiga, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Wakayama, Tokushima and Tottori prefectures plus Osaka and Sakai cities — on Wednesday softened its opposition to the restart of the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s (Kepco's) Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.
The union's turnaround has removed one of the last major obstacles to the central government's effort to bring the reactors back on line. The central government is expected to make a final decision soon on restarting the reactors.
Behind the union's turnaround was the central government's pressure and lobbying by Kepco and the Kansai Economic Federation, headed by Kepco Chairman Shosuke Mori. The call for a 15 percent reduction in power consumption apparently played an important role. If the central government decides to restart the Oi reactors, it will be a decision made in the absence of a solid foundation to ensure the safety of nuclear power generation.
The sole "scientific basis" for restarting the Oi reactors 3 and 4 is the results of a stress test. But a stress test is, after all, a computer simulation whose results can vary depending on the data fed into computers and the computer programs used.
In addition, the data and programs used have not been disclosed and third-party checks are impossible. Thus outside parties cannot determine whether the test is appropriate. Stress tests are merely being used as an excuse for the central government and power companies to restart reactors.
In a stress test, each reactor's safety margin to prevent severe accidents is measured by taking into account such factors as earthquakes, tsunamis, loss of all power sources and loss of cooling functions. But nobody can tell how much of a safety margin in a computer simulation can ensure the prevention of severe accidents. Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame himself stated in February that stress tests could not be used to gauge the safety of nuclear power plants.
The central government's dangerous obsession with restarting the reactors is highlighted by the fact that it has not even worked out a road map to phase out nuclear power generation.
If the central government decides to restart the Oi reactors, it will be clear that it has not given serious thought to the nuclear catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Thorough scrutiny of the Fukushima nuclear crisis has yet to be completed, and no new nuclear safety standards and regulations based on the Fukushima disaster have been devised. Despite these glaring omissions, the central government is making an all-out effort to bring the Oi reactors on line.
Apart from the stress test results, the central government is going to use provisional safety standards as an excuse to restart the Oi reactors. They were devised in April in just three days by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which is part of the trade and industry ministry, whose mission is to promote nuclear power.
It is clear that the provisional standards have not made the public confident that the central government is sincerely working to ensure nuclear safety.
Even if the provisional safety standards are applied, it will take three years for Kepco to install a seismically isolated emergency command center as well as filters to remove radioactive substances if such substances are vented from reactor cores during an emergency.
It must be pointed out that the central government is pushing for the restart of the reactors in the absence of concrete means to prevent the release of radioactive substances in the event of a severe accident and a concrete plan to evacuate people in communities near a stricken nuclear power plant.
Moreover, the central government and nuclear power industry are not equipped with technologies to solve the long-term issue of how to safely store the highly radioactive waste that is accumulating as the result of nuclear power generation.
The central government is pushing for the restart of the Oi Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at a time when opinion polls show that about 60 percent of those surveyed oppose the reactor restart, and despite the fact that small and medium-size companies as well as service companies in the Kansai region have expressed their readiness to conserve electricity consumption on the premise that no nuclear plants would be operating this summer.
Whether intentional or not, the central government's decision will deal a severe blow to this energy-savings mindset.
The recent development with regard to the restart of the Oi reactor points to further deterioration of the quality of Japan's politics. Fearful of public opinion opposing the restart, the central government waited for a change in the political mood.
The union of the Kansai local governments softened its opposition to the restart because it feared complaints about possible rolling blackouts imposed during peak demand periods in the region serviced by Kepco. But the union did not clearly call for the restart. In short, no politicians want to take responsibility for making a concrete decision.
The Oi assembly on May 15 agreed to the restart of the Oi reactors. About half of the town's budget is funded by nuclear power-related subsidies and tax revenues. The central government should must take steps to diversify the local economy and end its reliance on the nuclear industry.