The international mudslinging that's gone on in the last two months over nuclear power has fascinated me. I used to be one of that great majority of Irish people who knew very little about and yet were opposed to it in principle. Ireland prides itself on being a non-nuclear state. When I was in secondary school in 2002, we were given postcards protesting against the Sellafield nuclear power plant to sign. There was no space for a debate on nuclear energy, only 'here - sign as many of these as you can'. One card illustrated what the Eastern coastline could look like after a major disaster at Sellafield in neon "radiation" colours, green and pink. Another featured a close-up of a green (hence Irish?) eye with the words 'Tony. Look me in the eye and tell me I'm safe.' As students, we dutifully wrote our names and mailed cards off to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the British Prime Minister.
Since March 11th and the Fukushima crisis, I've become a nuclear expert. Of course, I won't claim to have any real scientific knowledge, but the recent improvement in my understanding of nuclear power generation can only be described as the transition from ignorance to expertise. This increased understanding has neither fostered by staunch anti-nuclear stance nor caused a radical turn-around in my beliefs. Nuclear issues are far more complex than I had imagined and I think both more knowledge and careful contemplation are required before I will know where I stand. That said, there are some things I'm now sure about, all of which lead me to congratulate Mr. Kan on the extremely wise request he made yesterday.
1. The maximum amount of safety precautions must be taken regarding nuclear power.
I doubt that anyone in Japan or indeed elsewhere would disagree with me on this. The question is how we define 'maximum' and predict the relevant safety threats. I assume Japanese nuclear plants on the Pacific coast all boast impressive seawalls, but how high are they? The wall at Fukushima Daiichi was not high enough.
How big is the error margin in the risk analysis that's done before deciding how extreme the safety precautions at a plant should be? If governments are willing to give planning permission for nuclear plants along active seismic fault lines, these error margins need to be reduced. The Japanese government has realised this in ordering power plant operators across the country to reassess and improve their safety features.
Hamaoka: lacks the maximum amount of safety precautions. The very fact that its operator has pledged to build a breakwater of 15m (behind the 10m that was previously all it cared to finance) in the next 2-3 years shows that it lacks a precaution the CHUBU electric power company clearly views as essential (or they wouldn't be financing it).
The location of the plant over/nearby the probable epicentre of the predicted Tokai earthquake means that unlike any other nuclear power plant in the world - a major disaster WILL occur there, it's just a case of when. Proper safety precautions will reduce the effects of that disaster.
2. Without aggressive public monitoring, private companies are inclined not to implement the maximum amount of safety precautions.
So now private power companies have got the authorities on their backs, and so they should. It's only as a result of outside monitoring that companies like TEPCO have been forced to adhere to reasonable safety standards in the past. In 2002, the company was discovered to have falsely reported in over 200 government inspections over a period of more than 20 years. In Japan, a particular problem is Tokyo bureaucrats going to bed with power company tycoons they're supposed to be regulating. This takes the form of retiring politicians accepting cosy senior positions at the companies. All reasonable expectation of unbiased monitoring goes out the window in these cases.
Thanks to domestic and international outcry over Fukushima, the government is suddenly putting effective pressure on power companies to do the right thing. The ministry of the economy, trade and industry has ordered companies to implement new safety measures, but when Kan announced his request for the CHUBU company to shutdown its nuclear reactors, he had to acknowledge that he had no authority to order them to do it. Perhaps he should.
Hamaoka: is a case in which the government has already failed in its monitoring responsibility. The Tokai earthquake was first predicted in 1969 by seismologist Kiyoo Mogi, months before planning permission was granted for the plant. Amazed that the government allowed the construction of a nuclear power plant above the expected focal region of an 8+ magnitude quake, Mogi has repeatedly called for its closure. This is spelt out in his paper 'Two grave issues concerning the expected Tokai Earthquake', a terrifying read.
3. While people do overreact to radiation fears, they also under react.
We all chucked benevolently at the panic buying of salt in China. For people in Tokyo, the panic buying of bottled water was a little more worrying...but perhaps the most serious inappropriate reactions to Fukushima have been from people returning to live within the government evacuation zone. It was as a result of this that entering the zone was eventually made illegal, a law now enforced by the JSDF (Japanese Self Defence Forces). It seems that after the initial panic and adrenaline rush caused by the crisis, people disregarded the real health risks.
Hamaoka: was the subject of protests in Shizuoka as far back as 2002 (www.stop-hamaoka.com/english). When they achieved nothing, interest in the issue waned despite the fact that the threat was increasing (for every year the Tokai doesn't occur, it becomes a fraction more likely to occur the following year). Since the beginning of the Fukushima crisis, public demonstration has resumed. Contrary to cultural norms, the Japanese have risen up express dissatisfaction with the way both power companies and the government are dealing with nuclear energy. This is THE appropriate reaction and it looks as though the government has finally taken it seriously.
Government action must happen now because the Fukushima crisis will blow over and people will settle back into their comfortable lives, no longer overtly aware of the dangers of the Hamaoka plant. This is natural because it's impossible to live life in a constant state of fear, but it means that unless something is done now, what happens at Hamaoka after the Tokai quake will probably be worse than Fukushima.
Since the 11th of March continuous efforts have been underway to get all of Fukushima Daiichi's reactors into to a state of cool shutdown. The discontinuation of energy production at the plant has resulted in blackouts across the north east and a reduction in train services. This was/is an inconvenience for millions of people (more than 12,000,000 live in Tokyo), but did TEPCO attempt to restart the nuclear processes in the Fukushima reactors? No, because that would have been crazy. The increased comfort of all those millions of people would not have been worth the safety risk posed by restarting the reactors without being able to monitor or control what was happening inside them.
4. There is a point at which the risks that come with nuclear power are no longer worth the benefits it brings.
Hamaoka's: operation is another such risk. With an 87% chance that the Tokai earthquake will strike in the next 30 years, it seems like sheer madness that the government would allow the CHUBU electric power company to operate Hamaoka with less than the maximum amount of safety precautions in place, and sheer madness that the company would announce their intention to restart the currently shutdown reactor number 3 while simultaneously announcing that the maximum amount of safety precautions are not currently in place.
CHUBU and the LDP (political opposition) might be worried about power shortages (i.e. not enough air conditioning) during the summer months but frankly I'm more concerned about the health of large numbers of people. 170,000 people have been evacuated from within a 20 km radius of Fukushima, while more than 300,000 live within the same distance of Hamaoka.
Maybe the Tokai earthquake will never happen and I sincerely hope that it doesn't. On the other hand, scientists and the Japanese government are convinced that it will, hence the Large-Scale Earthquake Countermeasures Act of 1978. They have predicted the destruction it will cause - 310 billion dollars of damage and 7,000-9,000 deaths. The whole point of countermeasures is reducing this destruction by reducing risks.
With this in mind, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and corresponding Fukushima nuclear crisis are likely to mark a watershed in disaster preparedness in Shizuoka Prefecture. People have been incited to demand that the government adequately monitors the otherwise irresponsible nuclear power plant operators implementation of the maximum amount of safety precautions. Japan is learning from experience as we speak.