Two reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture came into the news yesterday, with media sources proffering widely differing views regarding the question about their fitness for restart.
While the Asahi indicated that Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, had given “conditional approval” Sept. 13 to TEPCO’s application to resume operations of its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the Japan Times, quoting Japanese news wires, stated that the reactors would be staying idle — for now.
The NRA had “held off certifying the safety of two idle reactors” at the Niigata plant due to “a lack of debate on specific safety measures taken,” the article continued.
Reports seemed to be in agreement, however, that once more tests had been undertaken, the restarting of one of the world’s largest nuclear power complexes was not far away, even if the NRA still harbours grave concerns about TEPCO’s fitness to operate a nuclear plant, especially, says the Asahi, given the utility’s “tendency to put its balance sheet ahead of safety precautions.”
The utility’s poor record in that department notwithstanding, concerns about the Niigata plant go much deeper than managerial competence or ethics. It has long been held by some seismologists and other experts that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant sits on an active geological fault, although TEPCO and the Japanese government have long insisted the plant is seismically safe.
That claim was shown to be spurious a decade ago when on July 16, 2007, a powerful earthquake brought the nuclear plant to a standstill.
Of course, a nuclear plant coming to a standstill after a quake is no bad thing — emergency systems at nuclear plants are in place to ensure operations cease following a significant event, including natural disasters such as a magnitude 7 quake.
But it soon became obvious that the plant had experienced other potentially disastrous problems after the 2007 earthquake.
Aafter the quake, I headed straight up to Niigata, primarily to cover the disaster, which caused widespread devastation in Japan’s northeastern Chuetsu region, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless, but also to try and locate relatives of a friend who hailed from one of the worst-hit towns.
Even then there were rumours of a leak at the nuclear plant, and some residents who had been evacuated to temporary shelters said they were more fearful of a nuclear leak than the regular aftershocks that shook the area.
It was only a couple of years earlier that some of those residents -- backed by seismologists and other experts -- had tried to get the plant taken offline due to concerns of the active fault beneath the plant — a case that was summarily rejected.
As mentioned in my book, "Yoshida’s Dilemma", in the aftermath of the 2007 quake, when it came to light that hundreds of barrels of contaminated water had been toppled by the quake and that a door had been jammed preventing entry into the reactor control rooms, distrust in a system that had long seemed to side with the nuclear industry deepened.
“In 2007,” writes Temple University researcher Jeff Kingston in the Japan Times, “Mother Nature overruled the judge, raising questions about relying on old evaluations by institutions favoring nuclear energy in assessing site safety.”
Concerns surrounding the safety of the Niigata plant (and several others in Japan, for that matter), especially since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, have been at the centre of arguments by local politicians and residents who have been opposed to the its restart. Restarts of other nuclear plants in Japan face similar opposition, though the sheer size of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa — seven reactors with a capacity of 8,200 megawatts (enough to power 16 million households) all clustered together on one site — have added significant gravitas to those arguments.
Over the years, nuclear skeptics have been elected to power in Niigata Prefecture, largely due to concerns expressed by the world nuclear body, the IAEA, about the plant, but also due to the appearance of reports in 2002 regarding TEPCO’s falsification of data about some of its 17 reactors, in particular those in operation in Fukushima. In "Yoshida's Dilemma", I talk in length about these coverups, and the underhand way in which TEPCO exposed the identity of some of the whistleblowers who came forward to bring the utility's wrongdoing to light.
While slowly diminishing, public oppposition to nuclear restarts in Japan is still high, with one poll late last year showing 57 percent oppose recommencing operations of the nation’s nuclear fleet, though just under one-third support it.
That fleet had stood at 54 reactors, but has been significantly reduced since the 2011 disasters, placing further strain on the nation's electricity demands and a greater dependency on fossil fuels. A number of nuclear reactors are slated for decommissioning — including the six reactors at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility, the site of the 2011 accident, while others have been forced to close by the sheer weight of public opinion.
In Niigata, Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama has made efforts not toward preventing the reopening of the Kashiwazaki plant per se, but rather to ensure that prior to its restart all possible safety checks and thorough contingency plans in the event of an accident are researched and implemented. He has also called for a comprehensive review of studies looking at the impact of the Fukushima accident on public health, another issue discussed in Yoshida's Dilemma.
Some have seen this as nothing more than a delay tactic, but it would appear that despite the huge costs incurred from such checks and cleaning up the Fukushima crisis, TEPCO is hell-bent on getting the plant back up and running. Furthermore, it would seem from the recent announcement that pragmatics may eventually win the day. TEPCO has plowed ahead with its plans to get Niigata back up and running and the prefecture is slowly recognising the importance — often called “nuclear dependency” or “addiction” by critics — of the trillions of yen it has received over the decades in subsidies, not to mention tax revenues and thousands of jobs.