The Nuclear Village in Japan

After an earthquake and tsunami created a creeping nuclear catastrophe two years ago the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) said it would get the country out of nuclear energy by 2040. Although it quickly backtracked, almost all of Japan’s 50 commercial reactors are still lying idle.

In February this year (2013), Shinzo Abe, leader of the then incoming Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said the new government would restart reactors after they passed a forthcoming set of new safety tests. The country’s “nuclear village”, a cosy bunch from industry and government, cheered. But now the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is starting to alarm the public once more. On April 15th, 2013 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN body, flew in to investigate a series of dangerous incidents.

A power outage in March (2013) left four underground pools that store thousands of the plant’s nuclear fuel rods without fresh cooling water for several hours. A rat, it later emerged, had gnawed through a cable. Workmen laying down rat-proof netting caused another outage. Then this month regulators discovered that thousands of gallons of radioactive water had seeped into the ground; the plant’s operator had installed a jerry-rigged system of plastic sheeting, which sprang leaks. The quantity of contaminated water has become a crisis in its own right, the manager has admitted. And now the pipes used to transfer water to safer storage containers are leaking too.

Experts who examined the causes of the 2011 catastrophe reckon the LDP has paid too little attention to what went wrong. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of a parliamentary investigation, says the country may be moving “too hastily back towards nuclear power, without fully regaining the trust of the Japanese public and the international community”. Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor of Asahi Shimbun newspaper who headed a private-sector investigation, says it is unfortunate that the 2012 election, which brought the LDP back to office, did not include a proper debate about the future of nuclear energy.

Now the set of policies known as “Abenomics” is making a return to nuclear power ever more pressing. The LDP is expected to push hard to restart plants if it wins a crucial election for the upper house of parliament this summer. Mr Abe’s focus on the economy has given greater say to the voice of business, including the big utilities whose plants are idle. Smaller firms clamour for cheaper power too.

Japan’s broader economic future may be at stake… [the deterioration of  overall current-account balance]  could affect Japan’s ability to keep funding its huge public debt domestically. A big cause is the cost of energy imported to fill the gap left by nuclear power. A weaker yen, the result of the central bank’s radical loosening of monetary policy, is further pushing up the price of imported oil and gas…[T]he public is still afraid of nuclear power. A nationwide poll  in February 2013 found that around 70% of respondents wanted either to phase out all the plants, or to shut them down immediately. Opposition is likely to be strongest at the local level, as regions move to switch their reactors back on. This week an Osaka court ruled on a suit brought by local residents to have Japan’s only two operating reactors, at the Oi plant in Fukui prefecture, shut down. They lost, but their suit looks like only the first of many battles

Japan’s nuclear future: Don’t look now, Economist, Apr. 20, 2013, at 44.

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