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As I See It: Neighboring governors should be given right to decide reactor restarts

Saga Gov. Yoshinori Yamaguchi speaks to reporters on April 24, 2017. (Mainichi)

Saga Gov. Yoshinori Yamaguchi on April 24 agreed to the restart of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai Nuclear Power Plant, telling a press conference, "I've been able to gain the understanding of prefectural residents as a whole."

    This "agreement," however, came amid protest from the mayors of four out of eight municipalities -- one within Saga Prefecture, and three outside the prefecture -- that are located within 30 kilometers of the Genkai nuclear plant, and are therefore required to draw up evacuation plans for its residents in the case of a nuclear incident.

    Following the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, rules regarding the safety of nuclear facilities were beefed up, but the arrangement in which the nuclear plant host municipality and host prefecture can unilaterally give consent toward the reactivation of nuclear reactors has not changed. It is absurd that such a system that allows for the wishes of half the municipalities within 30 kilometers of a nuclear plant to be ignored is in place. Reviewing the process in which local municipalities reach reactivation agreements is a task that calls for great urgency.

    "The Saga governor is ignoring strong protests regarding safety from surrounding municipalities," Masashi Shimizu, the 69-year-old head of the Shin-Matsuura Fisheries Union on Takashima island in Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture, fumed when I visited him on May 12. Takashima island, with a population of about 2,000, is, at its closest point, just 8.3 kilometers from the Genkai nuclear plant. The waters in the area are considered abundant fishing grounds for Japanese horse mackerel, and when the fisheries union carried out a survey of union members in March, 92 percent expressed opposition to the reactivation of the Genkai reactors.

    "There've been no detailed talks on compensation in the case of an incident," Shimizu said, angrily. "If an incident were to occur, the fishing industry here is over."

    Residents are worried about evacuation as well. Takashima island is connected to the main island of Kyushu by a single bridge, but using that bridge would mean moving closer to the Genkai nuclear plant to escape. "Young people, who are the ones who will continue to live here, are the most opposed to resuming operation of the plant. Unless we make our voices heard to (Saga) Gov. Yamaguchi and others who refused to listen to us, there could be serious problems in the future," Shimizu said.

    With the completion of necessary processes for obtaining agreement from the host municipality, the Genkai plant is set to be reactivated as early as this autumn. Some 700 members of the fisheries union, however, are poised to stage a seaborne demonstration in July to continue protesting the restart.

    Such moves have prompted mayors to take action. At an April 4 press conference, Matsuura Mayor Ikuhiro Tomohiro expressed his opposition to the reactivation of the Genkai reactors, saying, "Many residents do not feel at ease about it." The entire city of Matsuura, which has a population of approximately 23,000, is within 30 kilometers of the Genkai nuclear plant. The Genkai town assembly and the Genkai town mayor approved the reactors' reactivation, on Feb. 24 and March 7, respectively, and with the Saga Prefectural Assembly and Saga Gov. Yamaguchi inching toward expressing their approval, the Matsuura mayor determined he could no longer hold off voicing his opposition.

    Six days later, Mayor Naruhiko Kuroda of the Nagasaki Prefecture city of Hirado, located to the immediate west of Matsuura, stated his objection to the restart. A total of eight municipalities in Saga, Nagasaki and Fukuoka prefectures are within 30 kilometers of the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant, but now four mayors -- three in Nagasaki Prefectures and one in Saga Prefecture -- had made their objections known, including those of the Saga Prefecture city of Imari and the Nagasaki Prefecture city Iki, who had expressed their opposition to the reactivation of the Genkai reactors from before.

    After Kagoshima, Ehime and Fukui Prefectures, Saga is the fourth prefecture that has agreed to the resumption of nuclear power plant operations within its boundaries under the new safety criteria set after March 2011. But Saga is the only prefecture in which half of municipalities within 30 kilometers of a nuclear plant opposed the restart. Still, Gov. Yamaguchi did not change his mind.

    The No. 3 (top right) and 4 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai Nuclear Power Plant are seen in this Nov. 6, 2016 file photo. (Mainichi)

    During the press conference in which Gov. Yamaguchi divulged that he had agreed to the reactors' restart, he explained that he had heard many arguments against reactivation at the five information sessions that were held in Saga Prefecture and from emails sent by local residents. He revealed that three mayors, including those of the prefectural cities of Ureshino and Kanzaki located within 30 kilometers of the plant, opposed the decision, but emphasized that his final decision was the result of careful consideration. At the same time, however, the 18-page document that had been prepared for the media ahead of the press conference did not address any opposing opinions from neighboring Nagasaki Prefecture, and when questioned by reporters, Yamaguchi did not go any further than to say, "Prefectures that host nuclear plants have the responsibility to lend an ear to the requests of other prefectures."

    Hitoshi Yoshioka, an expert on the social history of science and technology at Kyushu University, says, "In the case of a serious nuclear incident, Gov. Yamaguchi would bear part of the responsibility for inflicting damage on residents of other prefectures." Yoshioka takes the position that a governor, who constitutes the last line of defense against the reactivation of nuclear reactors, bears a heavier responsibility than they think when they go against the objections of surrounding municipalities.

    Understandably, it would be too harsh to place all the blame on the governor of Saga Prefecture, when the process for approval of reactivation itself is defective. The central government's basic energy plan states that in the case of reactor reactivations, the state will stand at the forefront and make efforts to gain the understanding and cooperation of the municipalities that host the plant and others. However, the plan does not explicitly state what kind of methods it would take to fulfill that duty. Both the central government and power companies have considered the agreement of the host municipality as the most important criteria for reactivation, but the legal basis for that remains fuzzy.

    Throughout the process that Saga Gov. Yamaguchi went through until he revealed his agreement to reactivation, many mayors, including the aforementioned Mayor Tomohiro, demanded an expansion of the range of people who must agree for reactors to be able to resume operations. Nagasaki Prefecture Gov. Hodo Nakamura advocated for legislation that would set down explicit processes to take the concerns of areas with vested interests into consideration. It's not surprising that Yamaguchi lamented the difficult position in which he was placed. "I hope the central government looks carefully at the discussions that were carried out under very difficult-to-understand circumstances," he said.

    Professor Yoshioka points out, "If it were to be formally required that the consent of all municipalities within 30 kilometers of the Genkai plant must be obtained before reactivation, resuming reactor operations would be impossible under current conditions." As a realistic proposal, he recommends that neighboring governors -- who are in charge of coordinating the views of municipalities in their prefectures -- should, as a general rule, be given the right to give or withhold consent.

    In the case of a nuclear disaster, how will compensation be given out to victims? And who will take the ultimate responsibility of making sure residents are evacuated? In order to prevent the country's nuclear policy to continue to play out in its current, irresponsible manner, the process of consent should be legislated. (By Shinji Kanto, Saga Bureau)

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