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Sunday, April 22, 2012

MEDIA MIX

TV 'wide shows' question decision to restart Oi reactor


When it comes to public relations, the Japanese government tends toward imprecision. Many say the Japanese language is already built for vagueness, but that doesn't mean Japanese people can't see through the haze.

News photo
Starting gun: Kepco's nuclear power plant in Oi, Fukui Prefecture. KYODO

In the last few weeks, trade minister Yukio Edano's attempts to explain possible resumption of operations at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture has resulted in statements so fuzzy they could mean just about anything. On April 9, he announced that the ministry determined that the Oi plant's No. 3 and 4 reactors, currently offline for routine inspections, had "roughly" conformed to safety standards. Critics called him out on his choice of words, and he answered that it wasn't his "intention" to imply the government was "in a hurry," but if there were any problems then "politics" would take "full responsibility."

Tokyo Shimbun wondered what exactly "responsibility" meant in this context. After all, no one has yet to take "full responsibility" for the Fukushima No. 1 reactor accident. The government hasn't even set up an independent nuclear watchdog. It's difficult to accept a claim of responsibility when there's no proof that anyone learned anything from previous mistakes. This skepticism was reflected in an Asahi Shimbun survey that found 70 percent of the public did not believe Noda's reassurances of safety. Moreover, 66 percent said they didn't believe the supply and demand projections of the plant's operator, Kansai Electric Power Co., which has indicated it may not have enough power to cover peak demand this summer without the Oi reactor.

Though Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda took over the government last summer with a pledge to ween Japan off of nuclear energy, he and a small group of cabinet members have since found common cause with interested bureaucrats and business leaders to form what Tokyo Shimbun calls an "apparatus" that will ensure Japan's official nuclear energy policy stays on track.

The Oi reactor issue is a complicated one, and the government and Kepco cynically assume the public lacks the patience to comprehend it. It is thus the media's job to make the public understand. Economist Hiroko Ogiwara in the Asahi and Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono on his official blog have tried to explain what's at stake by showing that Kepco doesn't need Oi to guarantee enough capacity for this summer, but the average reader will have a tough time cutting through the dense undergrowth of facts and figures they present.

So thank heavens for the morning weekday "wide shows," whose task, usually in the service of reporting scandal and human interest, is to make the news interesting to the average full-time homemaker. TV Asahi's "Morning Bird" not only punched a hole in Kepco's claim that it doesn't have enough power for the summer, but also made the potent accusation, backed by the same facts and figures, that the utility has forfeited its mandate as a regional electric power monopoly.

Before that, however, the report clarified what everybody already suspected, that the Oi plant has not undergone any improvements that would make it safe in a major earthquake: still no "filter vents" to prevent radiation leakage, still no quake-proof control room facilities, still only one access road to the plant running through landslide country. Moreover, one of the scientists hired by the government to carry out "stress tests" told TV Asahi that none of the new measures deemed vital since the Fukushima accident have been incorporated into the safety discussion for the Oi plant. If a similar-sized accident occurred, radiation would spread to Lake Biwa, which supplies 99 percent of Osaka's drinking water.

Kepco asserts that without any nuclear plants, its power supply this summer could be insufficient by as much as 18 percent during peak demand periods. TV Asahi showed that demand for power only exceeded current supply capacity for 30 noncontiguous hours during 2011. If such demand reaches that level again this summer, Kepco could increase momentary output at hydroelectric facilities by using pumps, or by buying energy from private suppliers in the Kansai region.

In truth, Kepco is compelled to take such measures, because the company's regional energy monopoly is premised on a guarantee that capacity will not drop below necessary levels regardless of the reason. That's the law. Kepco and the government use the lack-of-capacity argument as a threat so they can justify restarting Oi before the summer, because once the peak power season starts and Kepco is forced by law to find other sources of energy (if, in fact, it really needs it), the public may realize they can get by without Oi, or any other nuclear reactors for that matter.

Whether or not Japan should completely abandon nuclear power is less an immediate question than whether or not the government is being forthright about its safety assurances. Though the media has finally owned up to its mission with regard to challenging the government and the regional power monopolies on their nuclear energy position, it also has to talk about the risks associated with greater reliance on fossil fuels. In that regard, all it has done is repeat the warnings of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's chief policymaker Yoshito Sengoku, who has said that giving up nuclear energy will increase CO2 output.

Though it's a point worth discussing, Sengoku is hardly the man to lead it. He is known to be a nuclear power partisan because of political support from Tokyo Electric Power Company's labor union, and unofficially he's the point man in the aforementioned pronuclear apparatus. Such a commitment often produces hyperbole, such as Sengoku's comment last week equating the abandonment of Japan's nuclear-energy policy with "mass suicide." No imprecision there, just desperation.



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