Abe Shinzo, a runaway prime minister: His decision to re-start nuclear reactors

Currently 56.7% of Japanese people oppose the restart of nuclear reactors while 34.4% support it (see Tokyo Shimbun dated August 16, 2015). Ignoring this national sentiment, PM Abe decided that nuclear reactors would re-start from the 11th of August. The first reactor which was re-started is located at the Sendai power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, in the southern main island of Kyushu. The second one there is expected to be put back into operation in September. Normally electricity demand in extremely hot and humid summer months would jump up because of the use of air conditioners. Nevertheless, our electricity supply has been more than sufficient this summer and the last. At least, no incident of blackout has been reported. Moreover, there is an active volcano called Sakurajima within 50km from the Sendai power plant, and the eruption alert of this volcano has been raised, as of the 16th of Aug., from level 3 (climbing the mountain is restricted) to level 4 (ordering of evacuation preparation). There are other active volcanoes nearby, as well. Under these conditions, it is difficult to understand why nuclear reactors had to be re-activated at this time. I would say it is a reckless act of a runaway PM Abe.

There are some elements in relation to the re-operation of nuclear reactors that I consider reckless. One of them is that no sufficient evacuation plans have been drawn out for the residents near the plant in case of an accident. In addition, if reactors are put back into operation, this would only add up to the nuclear waste we have already accumulated thus far without having a clear and reliable policy on its safe disposal or processing. For a small earthquake-prone country like ours with so many active volcanoes throughout the country, we should not leave behind us more than what we have already accumulated the extremely dangerous nuclear waste for our future generations to have to deal with. That is the wish of the majority of people in Japan, but the head of Nippon Keidanren or Japan Business Federation, a powerful business lobbyist group, issued a statement welcoming PM Abe’s decision.

After the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, we experienced an unprecedented disaster as a result of the meltdown in Fukushima. Since then most of the nuclear reactors had been put to rest for maintenance and construction work to install new measures under the new safety standards stipulated by Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Due to the fact that about 30% of Japan’s electricity consumption used to be met by nuclear power until the disaster, however, both the government and the public were concerned about possible power shortage, especially during summer months. The former PM Noda therefore decided to put two reactors back into operation to cope with the situation.

As all reactors must stop after 13 months of operation for inspection and maintenance, these two reactors were of no exception, and Japan managed all right for the last two years without any single nuclear reactor in operation. This did not hinder normal economic activities or did not prevent the public from enjoying life as comfortable as before. The power companies might have faced difficult financial situations due to sharp increases in the import of oil and LNG. However, I wonder if PM Abe or Keidanren would not have imagined what might happen to Japan if another disaster like the one in Fukushima is repeated. How could they have made such a serious decision that might affect the survival of this country merely based on their short-term profit or loss?

Another point I consider reckless is that, as in the past, there is no clear-cut understanding of who is ultimately responsible for the safety of people concerned. PM Abe kept saying that only the reactors judged as safe by “world’s most strict safety standards” stipulated by NRC would be permitted to re-start. Indeed, the reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant have been declared to be in compliance with the new standards, but the chairman of NRC has repeatedly stated that even if they met the new standards, NRC was not in the position to guarantee the safety of reactors. .

In other words, the NRC chairman is implying that accidents can occur. If so, establishing realistic evacuation plans of people concerned in case of a disaster becomes absolutely essential. PM Abe, on the other hand, says that even if reactors are judged to be in compliance with the new standards, it was up to each power company to ultimately decide whether to re-start reactors or not. This shows that no one of the PM, the NRC and the power company is willing to take the ultimate responsibility in case of a disaster. If another horrific accident like the one in Fukushima is repeated, victims’ health would be ruined due to radiation exposure, their environment destroyed, they be forced to flee their homes and communities and their families disintegrated. On the other hand, tax payers would end up being forced to shoulder increased taxes to cover compensations to victims, no matter how hard they have campaigned against nuclear energy, simply because no power company can afford to pay huge compensation bills.

What I consider most unforgivable in relation to the re-start of nuclear reactors is how the government is treating the people of Fukushima when the disaster there is still far from being put under control. Not only that more than 100,000 affected residents are still forced to live in uncomfortable, temporary shelters, but also many of them are now being pressured by the government to return home. In addition, despite the number of cases of thyroid cancer discovered among children in Fukushima is much higher than the national average, the government still has not come to admitting officially, as of Aug. 16, a causal relationship with the nuclear meltdown there. Doesn’t it seem like a story that you might hear in a poor developing country somewhere far away? Indeed, this is what is happening in Japan, the third largest economy in the world!

Shinzo Abe and government officials have repeatedly stated that they would stand by the people of Fukushima in their recovery and reconstruction effort, but I would say that they should demonstrate this by action, and not merely by empty words. For example, the government cancelled at the end of Dec. 2014 the evacuation order for the Minamisoma area, pressuring the residents to go home. However, this was done by suddenly raising from 1mSv of the annual radiation exposure dose limit in their communities to 20mSv. It should be mentioned that the value of 20mSv per annum is the same as the restriction standards applicable to those who work in radiation controlled area in nuclear power plant. This sudden raise of the value of radiation exposure dose limit seems like something that we may witness in a dictatorial country where law is bent or reinterpreted to suit the convenience of the dictator. Naturally, the people of Minamisoma are now in a legal battle against the government, demanding that the cancellation of the evacuation order be withdrawn.

A similar case can be reported of the people of Narahamachi, not far from Minamisoma. They had been ordered to go home by mid Aug., but the government has agreed to postpone the cancellation of the evacuation order till Sept. 05 due to the strong opposition by the residents. After decontamination work around the house, the government insists that the radiation level has gone down to the level safe for residents to go home. But the radiation level fluctuates in different weather as fields, woods and forests cannot be decontaminated, and the residents assert that under such conditions, they would not be able to engage safely in agriculture or forestry, the main economic activities. Furthermore, they say that the tap water cannot be used safely as 10,000 Becquerel of cesium has accumulated per 1kg of mud at the bottom of the reservoir, the source of tap water. The government insists, however, that even drinking tap water is safe as no radioactivity has been detected from the surface layer of the reservoir. But who would accept those words with ease, especially after a rainy or windy day? Naturally, the residents would be very reluctant to go home in this situation.

Having been convinced of the myth that nuclear plants were safe and necessary propagated by the government and the power company, the people of Fukushima had accepted the national policy of building nuclear reactors in their hometowns. Yet, the way they are now being treated by the government is totally disgraceful and unacceptable. Under such circumstances, there should have never been a green light given for the re-operation of the Sendai nuclear power plant.

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