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Japan’s Nuclear Follies

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Japan’s Nuclear Follies

Nuclear energy may make sense in places where reactors can be operated safely, but Japan is a seismically active archipelago.

Japan’s Nuclear Follies

Crashed vehicles by collapsed houses are seen in Wajima in the Noto peninsula facing the Sea of Japan, northwest of Tokyo, Jan. 7, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Hiro Komae

A nuclear energy love fest surfaced at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, where nuclear power was touted as the only option to save the planet from climate change. Yet, the 7.6 magnitude Noto earthquake on January 1 provided a stark reminder that operating nuclear power plants is risky business, especially in Japan. The powerful quake shook the idled Shika nuclear plant on the Noto Peninsula beyond design specifications. Fortunately, there was no major damage reported, but two of the back-up generators failed and there was temporary loss of power in one of the cooling pools.

Japan has been celebrating its recent moon landing, but it took a month to restore electricity on the quake-stricken Noto Peninsula and thousands will not have water until mid-March. Meanwhile, at the end of January some 14,000 residents remain displaced in evacuation shelters where conditions are grim.

Shika has been shut down since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, but electricity is essential for cooling the spent fuel rod pools; if cooling is interrupted the water evaporates and the rods could explode, releasing plumes of radiation into the windy skies. In such a scenario, Kanazawa – population 465,000, just over 60 km away – would have to be evacuated. This would not only devastate the regional economy but also put the brakes on incoming tourism, just as it ground to a halt nationwide following the three meltdowns at Fukushima 13 years ago.

Plans to build another reactor on the Noto Peninsula are now shelved, but it was always a puzzling site given major quakes and tsunami in 1964, 1983, and 1993. The area has experienced an earthquake swarm over the past three years. The 2024 peak ground acceleration was almost the same as during the 2011 Tohoku quake that triggered the the Fukushima disaster.

Problematically, the utility initially reported that there were no changes in water levels at coastal intake valves but later corrected this to a rise of 3 meters, the height of the tsunami that devastated coastal towns on the peninsula. Apparently, this was a communication glitch rather than a gauge fault, but the snafu prompted the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to admonish the utility for not learning key lessons from the Fukushima accident.

The NRA should look in the mirror.

According to NHK, the NRA acknowledged that its disaster response guidelines failed to anticipate a complex disaster as happened in Fukushima. In a nuclear accident, the NRA calls on residents to shelter in place, but that is not an option for those in Noto whose homes were destroyed by the combination of the earthquake, tsunami, and related fires. The 2011 triple disaster in Tohoku should have ensured that a cascading disaster is integrated into the emergency response plan. NHK also reported that most radiation monitoring devices on the peninsula failed to function, leaving authorities in the dark about radiation levels and dispersal. This would make it difficult to manage evacuation of the 150,000 residents within the 30 km evacuation zone around the plant.

The current disruptions to Noto’s transport and communication networks have slowed emergency relief efforts and would be further compromised in the event of a radiation release or one of the region’s epic snowfalls.

The NRA guidelines require towns in that zone to conduct evacuation drills because the Fukushima experience demonstrated that improvising an exodus can be catastrophic. Yet, over the past decade there have been no comprehensive evacuation drills anywhere and only nine staged exercises in the nation’s 15 nuclear plant zones.

One of these limited exercises was conducted in the Shika zone, but it was a fiasco. There is nothing more disconcerting than watching a botched evacuation drill aimed at reassuring residents. Authorities assumed the road leading to the plant would be impassable and planned to evacuate local residents by ship, but waves were too high, so they reverted to a time consuming and embarrassing bus evacuation by the road. 

The implications for TEPCO, Japan’s biggest utility, are huge as it hoped to restart the world’s largest nuclear complex in neighboring Niigata, but anxieties and opposition have spiked and delayed that plan. Back in 2007 a major quake there jammed the emergency control room door, forcing the plant manager to manage the six reactors in the parking lot using whiteboards and mobile phones. Due to extensive revelations about a culture of lax safety practices and its shambolic disaster response in 2011, TEPCO has since discovered that trust is not a renewable resource.

At Fukushima the backup generators were inundated in the 2011 tsunami and failed to function, a key factor in the three meltdowns. Regulators had urged TEPCO to relocate the generators to higher, safer, ground behind the plant, but they were left in the lower vulnerable location between the plant and the ocean. This is an example of regulatory capture in which regulators kowtow to the regulated. Thirteen years ago, the Fukushima meltdowns displaced more than 450,000 people in the vicinity and even now there are still nearly 30,000 nuclear refugees and many people remain barred from returning to their homes due to radiation. Once vibrant communities have become ghost towns. Subsequently, across the nation everyone understands that in a nuclear disaster the government and utilities can’t be relied on.

Despite this stark situation, in December 2022, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced plans to restart Japan’s aging fleet of nuclear reactors, extend their operating licenses from 40 years to 60 years and build new reactors.

Back in 2012, The Economist determined that nuclear energy is not financially viable and that remains true. But generating costs can be reduced if corners are cut on safety in operating and maintaining nuclear reactors. The energy crisis triggered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine created a window of opportunity for Kishida to overturn the safety regime established in the wake of Fukushima. In light of Japan’s backsliding on safety issues, China’s and Russia’s  ambitious nuclear energy plans further cautions against the COP28’s nuclear exuberance, especially given these nations’ track records on transparency

Japan’s nuclear renaissance confronts the lack of a permanent storage site for its nuclear waste. There is also no evidence that mothballed reactors approaching the 40-year operating limit are now safer, but without the benefit of stress tests the government has yet again wished risk away. By ignoring the lessons of Fukushima, the government is shortchanging public safety. Nuclear energy may make sense in places where reactors can be operated safely, but Japan is a seismically active archipelago and as we learned from Fukushima, human error in operating safety systems amplifies such risks. It is time for Japan to retire its nuclear reactors and invest more in renewable energy and smart grids.