|By Sharryn Dotson, Editor|
Three years ago, it looked like nuclear power in Japan was a lost cause. As the black smoke rose from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, the fears of meltdowns, radiation releases and other known and unknown dangers were fresh in people’s minds. The government responded by shutting down all 48 reactors in the country by the end of 2012, vowing at one point to never restart them again.
We watched a shift with the election of a new leader and government and the implementation of stringent safety checks and upgrades, but with utilities hemorrhaging money due to those upgrades and years of not operating plants, it still seemed unlikely that any reactors would run.
My how things have changed. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) gave its preliminary approval July 16 for two reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant to restart by October. Plant operator Kyushu Electric Power Co. put in multi-layer steps to protect the reactor core and containment chamber from damage and added filter vents to reduce radiation leaks, two of several issues that contributed to the disaster at Fukushima, according to The Associated Press. The tsunami seawall at Sendai was tripled in height to 15 meters (50 feet), and Kyushu upgraded the equipment’s seismic resistance using lessons learned from Fukushima. These steps helped regulators to feel more confident about approving the plant to restart.
Still, Kyushu Electric has a few more steps before restart, such as on-site checks and obtaining local government consent. The plant is a major employer of the city of Satsumasendai in the Kagoshima Prefecture, but that doesn’t mean the mayor or the people are as willing as the NRA to allow the reactors to restart. Consider, though, that Kyushu Electric in April estimated a net loss of 125 billion yen ($1.2 billion) for the year ended March 31 and requested that the Development Bank of Japan buy 1 billion yen ($9.6 million) of preferred stock in the company. The restart of the plant could mean better financial results for the city and its residents. All nine of Japan’s publicly traded nuclear operators reported a loss of 3.2 trillion yen ($31 billion) since their reactors shut down.
At the same time, Japan has had to depend heavily on coal- and gas-fired power plants and renewables to make up the difference in lost nuclear generating capacity, which has led to a 4 percent increase of emissions in fiscal 2011 compared with the previous fiscal year. That’s the equivalent of 1,308 million tons of carbon dioxide thanks to the increased use of fossil-fueled thermal power plants to pick up the slack, according to Japan’s Environment Ministry.
Protestors contend that nuclear plants in Japan are inherently unsafe and a danger to the surrounding public due to the seismic and volcanic activity and should not be restarted under any circumstances. An article in the Asahi Shimbun said many residents from the Fukushima prefecture expressed outrage at the NRA’s decision to restart the two units, but their anger centered mostly around the fact that the government had issued the approvals without resolving a lawsuit residents filed against TEPCO asking for an apology and for the operator to take responsibility for the 2011 accident. More than 150,000 residents were evacuated after the disaster, and many still remain in temporary housing due to the dangerous radiation levels surrounding their homes.
That outrage and concern from the public could push local officials to listen more to their constituents than any report that regulators or Kyushu Electric could issue explaining how the upgrades make the plant safer. The people want to know that the next natural disaster will not cause the same problems seen in Fukushima, problems that could displace them from their homes for years because of radiation and other environmental concerns. The people also want to know that the government and plant owners will not only properly prepare against these disasters, but that they will also know how to respond to those disasters – no matter how extreme – to mitigate any damage to the environment and public trust. If Kyushu and the NRA can convince the local government of Satsumasendai, then that could be a lesson other plant operators can use in how to get everyone on the same page and once again generate reliable and low-emitting electricity for growing cities through the hot summers and cold winters.
The new government of Japan apparently believes that nuclear power is an important part of the country’s energy mix and is working to bring reactors back online, evident by the 17 other units on the NRA’s fast-track safety approval list. Those reactors will help lower greenhouse gas emissions and bring revenue in to cash-strapped utilities, which should help lower electricity prices. Trust must first be re-established between the public, governments and plant operators, and citizens must understand how these upgrades will help protect the reactors and, in turn, protect them from a Fukushima-type situation. Only then will more operators have a fighting chance to restart their reactors without much opposition.
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