Japan restarts first reactor since Fukushima disaster amid protest and concerns over new regulator

sendai.jpg- The Sendai Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Amid vociferous public opposition, Japan on Tuesday restarted the first of more than 40 atomic reactors that were taken out of service in wake of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which experienced a triple meltdown following a tsunami.

The restart marks the end of the two-year ban on nuclear power imposed by the government that idled 48 reactors in the immediate aftermath of the double meltdown at the six-reactor plant on the coast of Northeastern Japan.

Kyushu Electric Power Co. said Tuesday it had restarted the No. 1 reactor at its Sendai plant in Kagoshima prefecture about 1,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. The facility was expected to reach criticality by Tuesday’s end, and return to full output by early September, operators said.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Sendai plant and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence in Tokyo to protest the government’s decision to resume its atomic energy program.

sendai-protest-banner-320x102 An activist poster urging Japan to protest the restart of Sendai's No 1 reactor. (Photo: coatitionagainstnukes.jp)

But their calls went unheeded. Abe’s government has argued that Japan has few domestic energy sources, and the country imports virtually all the fossil fuels it uses to power its cars, homes and factories. Electricity prices in Japan have increased by 20 percent or more since the Fukushima disaster, squeezing households and businesses.

Abe has also offered up that his country can meet a 26 percent emissions cut commitment at December’s COP21 climate summit in Paris with the help of the country’s 48 nuclear reactors. But analysts in and out of Japan offer evidence that regulatory corners are being cut as the government primes the reactor restart switch.

The Sendai plant’s operator, Kyushu Electric Power Co, said it would start generating and delivering electricity by Friday. It is expected to restart another reactor in October.

nils-at-fukushima Bellona Executive Director Nils Bøhmer at the decontamination point for Fukushima cleanup workers, March, 2013. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona) Photo: Charles Digges

“It’s worrying that the first Japanese reactor was restarted amid such strong protest against it,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist. “Even with stricter regulation, you can’t escape that the reactor is situated in one of the world’s most seismically active areas where the risk of earthquakes and tsunami’s is constant.”

Utilities began submitting an avalanche approval requests to switch their reactors back on in July, 2013, overwhelming the new regulator.

A total of 23 more reactors at 14 plants have applied to restart after the second unit at Sendai comes online , but all are facing legal challenges from concerned locals, the BBC reported.

Three Three of those reactors – the No 3 and No 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama facility in Fukui Prefecture and reactor 3 at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, have been green lighted for restart by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, the Japan Times reported.

Takahama’s reactors, however, are under a  provisional injunction against their restart imposed on them in April by a district court, making their future restart uncertain.

Bøhmer, who with other Bellona staff has visited Fukushima in 2013 on the second anniversary of the disaster, is worried if the new regulator can withstand heavy industry and government lobbying, Japan’s stringent new regulations for restarts aside. The discrepancies between what local courts and the new national regulator consider ready for operational use is also perturbing.

“Even though nuclear regulators in Japan haven been re-organized and strengthen after the Fukushima accident, it is still in question as to whether they are strong and independent enough,” he said.

Oversight overhaul or business as usual?

After the Chernobyl-rivaling disaster, Japan overhauled its nuclear regulatory structure.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which was part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) was widely seen as weak and entangled in crony back-scratching with nuclear utilities. It was replaced by a new body, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, that was given more autonomy, and put under control of the Ministry of Environment.

tsunami waring sign A water-warped tsunami alert sign found on the beaches of Fukushima prefecture. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona)

The Nuclear Regulation Authority issued new binding regulations including orders to plant operators to strengthen tsunami and earthquake defenses; ensure emergency command centers can operate during natural disasters; and adopt venting systems to guard against radiation leaks and cool reactors in the event of a meltdown. The measures have been billed as some of the strictest in the world, entailing six-month-long inspections of each reactor applying to go back online.

Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka told the Nikkei business newspaper last week that the new regulations are “incomparably” stricter than the old ones.

“There is no such thing as absolute safety,” he said, but any accident “would be contained before it reached a scale anywhere near what happened in Fukushima.”

“A disaster like that at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi will not occur,” he added.

‘Systemic vulnerability’ surround Sendai reactors

But not everyone is convinced the NRA’s new measures are up to snuff. A number of shortcomings associated with general safety following a potential nuclear accident   surfaced in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The paper reported that 66 percent of medical institutions and 49 percent of social welfare facilities within 30 kilometers of any nuclear power plant have failed to compiled mandatory evacuation plans specifying evacuation destinations, routes and transportation means to be used in the event of an accident.

fukushima-workers Decontamination workers returning from the Fukushima plant, March 2013. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer)

The paper’s further investigations revealed other troubling factors specific to the Sendai plant itself. The Nuclear Regulator Authority approved a management plan for the Sendai plant even though its operator had not finished conducting some required earthquake stress tests on some aging equipment.

Further, only two of 85 medical facilities and less than 10 percent of the 159 foster homes within a 30-kilometer radius of the Sendai plant are prepared for a mass evacuation scenario.

On top of that, Sakurajima, one of Japan’s active volcanoes, is only 50 kilometers away from the Sendai plant. Several volcanologists have contradicted the inspectors who argue that the mountain poses no threat.

Asahi Shimbun concluded by criticizing the ongoing “systemic vulnerability” of the nuclear reactors.

Local officials say they grant permission for restarts based on the “central government’s” seal of approval but admit they also need direction from Tokyo to draw up more detailed and effective accident contingency plans, the Japan Times reported.

For it’s part, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority says it’s only responsible for the technical aspects of ensuring safety.

Human error absent from consideration

Yet, its new measures fail to take into account safety culture within the country’s nuclear industry – the people with their hands on the control panels. A 2013 parliamentary report directly implicated human error and the “insular attitude [among regulators] of ignoring international safety standards” as the main factors behind the catastrophe.

Jeffrey Kingston, a professor at Temple University and author of Contemporary Japan, agreed.

“The new so-called strict guidelines do not meet global standards and focus on hardware, whereas the main lesson of Fukushima is that human error was a major factor contributing to the meltdowns,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “This means much better training and nurturing a culture of safety, but it is clear that these significant risks remain unaddressed in the rush to restart – yet again corners are being cut and public safety is being risked to help the bottom line.”

Public opinion in the gutter

The restart at Sendai and the government’s push to get another 25 rectors online this year is opposed by 57 percent of the population, according to a poll from the Japanese newspaper Mainichi, while only 30 percent are in favor.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga poured water on arguments against restarts, telling Deutche Welle that, “local authorities have given their approval,”

This is hardly surprising, as the nuclear power plant is a major player in Kagoshima prefecture’s economy, thanks to central government subsidies and utility donations that come with hosting a plant

Abe has also skillfully jiggered his energy policy. His predecessor, Yoshihiko Noda, offered a vague gesture in 2012 at phasing out nuclear power in Japan by 2040 that would still allow a significant number of reactors to operate decades past that date.

When Abe came to power, he promised to reduce Japan’s 30 percent reliance on nuclear as much as possible. He followed this by announcing nuclear power would be “a main source” of electricity, and yet later still, said nuclear would constitute 20-22 percent of the country’s power mix.

But Abe’s administration has says it has left decisions regarding restarts to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.

Charles Digges