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Sunday, May 15, 2011
Utility and opponents lock horns over planned N-plant
By ERIKO ARITA
With the May 10 announcement by Prime Minister Naoto Kan of a fundamental review of nuclear power generation in Japan, the fate of 14 planned new reactors was necessarily thrown into doubt. However, neither ongoing events in Fukushima, nor news of the review, have changed the stance of the nation's electricity supply companies in promoting "clean and safe" nuclear energy.
Two of those 14 new reactors are planned by Chugoku Electric Power Co. to be built in the town of Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture — where many residents, including fishermen and farmers, are protesting against the plan. They are joined in their opposition by many biologists and ornithologists both in Japan and overseas, who maintain that the proposed new nuclear plant threatens endangered seabirds and other creatures.
Although Chugoku Electric has suspended construction of the plant since disaster struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), it still aims to go ahead with its plans — which involve reclaiming land from Tanoura Gulf in the Seto Inland Sea. In fact, on March 28, Takashi Yamashita, president of Chugoku Electric, said at a press conference at the company's Hiroshima headquarters that the Kaminoseki plant was necessary to secure future energy supplies and to tackle global warming.
In response to Yamashita's declaration, and following a public symposium already planned in the city and a visit to the site by scientists and researchers from Japan and North America, the experts traveled to Tokyo to hold a public meeting to express their concerns over the effects of Chugokju Electric's plans on wildlife and ecology.
At that meeting, held on April 14 in an office building of Upper House members of the Diet, the first Japanese contribution was from Tomohiko Iida, a professor at Kyushu University. He explained that among the species threatened by the proposed plant was the Japanese (or Crested) Murrelet (Synthliboramphus wumizusume). These birds inhabit only warm-water reefs and rocky islets in Japan and South Korea.
Known as kanmuri umisuzume (literally, crowned sea sparrows), these birds were designated as Japanese natural treasures in 1975 and — with their global numbers now thought to be down to around 5,000 — they are also on the Red List of International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
"Their population equals that of tigers or elephants — and most of them live in Japan," said Iida, who was the first to find the birds living offshore near Kaminoseki in June 2007. He now estimates that around 20 percent of the global population live on and off the fish-rich shores of Yamaguchi Prefecture and adjoining Hiroshima Prefecture, generally only coming ashore to breed.
Similar concerns over the 24-cm-long birds that are legally protected in Japan were also voiced by two foreign experts.
Harry R. Carter, a Canadian researcher who has studied the closely related Xantus' Murrelet in California and Mexico for 27 years, and — in cooperation with Japanese researchers — the Japanese murrelet since 1993, said he was "very concerned about the potential impact of the Kaminoseki nuclear power plant.
"If you choose not to build the power plant there, that is definitely the best approach to protect Japanese murrelets, which are already facing many threats."
Next, Nils Warnock, executive director of the long-established eco-conservation nonprofit organization Audubon Alaska and vice president of the National Audubon Society — pointed out that not only Japanese Murrelets, but other rare birds such as Streaked Shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) — which are also a designated natural treasure in Japan — rely on the marine biodiversity of the Kaminoseki area as their breeding habitat.
"Places like the unique biologically rich Seto Inland Sea need protection," Warnock said, "and the streaked shearwater colony recently found on the proposed site is the only one in the Seto Inland Sea."
"The proposed plant would threaten the area's biodiversity," he explained, "through the reclamation of its tidal flats, warm-water discharge and — as is now tragically being seen in other places in Japan — through the threat of escaping radiation."
In fact, in response to a request from the Ornithological Society of Japan, Chugoku Electric did research into the murrelets in the Kaminoseki area in May to August 2008, and September, 2008, to June, 2009.
According to a report on the findings of both these research periods released by the utility in September, 2009, a total of 157 Japanese Murrelets were spotted out at sea — but no nests could be found on the area's shores. Hence the utility's report came to the conclusion that they do not nest on the coasts — so the for-profit company could continue with its plans.
However, Iida, the Kyushu University professor, told the meeting there is a high probability the birds do nest there, as he had found families of them in the area.
Regarding the impact of warm-water discharge and radiation, Noriko Nagamoto, a spokeswoman for Chugoku Electric, said in an email to The Japan Times that the discharged water would be 7 degrees warmer than when it was taken from the sea and, as it spread, would only raise the surface temperature by 1 degree — according to the company's tests using a model of the plant.
"We believe that the impact of the water on the environment will be small," she said.
As for radiation leaking from the plant, the company said it would control the reactors so the radiation released from them was 0.05 millisieverts in a year — much lower than the amount to which people are exposed in ordinary life.
"We believe the impact on creatures is also extremely small," she said.
In contrast, Naohiko Noma, a lecturer at the University of Shiga Prefecture, who is vice chairman of the Kaminoseki Aftercare Committee of the Ecological Society of Japan, insisted that the marine ecology would be changed by the warm-water discharge.
He noted that power companies add chlorine to the cooling water so that barnacles can't live in the pipes and clog them up. "And chlorine can harm marine life," Noma warned.
Chugoku Electric's email claimed that the concentration of chlorine in the cooling water would be too low to affect the marine environment.
But Iida from Kyushu University countered this, noting that in 2010's "Kiseki no Umi" ("Sea of Miracles"), a book about biodiversity in the Seto Inland Sea to which he was a contributor, it is pointed out that just as Chugoku Electric chlorinated water so that barnacles can't live in it, so fish eggs, infant fish and squid pumped in from the sea along with the cooling water would die due to the chlorine and the temperature rise.
"Because (these creatures) are the food of Japanese Murrelets, I am afraid that this very important habitat for these birds would be lost," he said.
"I think their numbers would fall significantly and it is inevitable they become close to extinction."