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Editorial: What has Japan learned from the nuclear crisis?

One cannot help but wonder what Japan has learned from the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant triggered by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and how the country should build a new society.

    Many members of the public apparently feel frustrated when they look back on the past five years. A nuclear accident can happen even if preventive measures are taken. Japan has higher risks of nuclear disasters than other countries as it is prone to earthquakes and has numerous active volcanoes. Following meltdowns at the power station, many people decided that Japan should create a society that does not rely on nuclear power even if it is difficult to achieve.

    Five years have passed since the outbreak of the nuclear disaster. Nevertheless, some 100,000 residents of the affected areas are unable to go back to their hometowns, and are still taking refuge elsewhere in Fukushima and outside the prefecture. Radioactive substances that leaked from the crippled plant contaminated soil in wide areas, dealt a fatal blow to local industries and caused splits in families and local communities.

    While witnessing such extensive damage, the government has adopted a policy of retaining nuclear power and electric power companies restarted four nuclear reactors over the past year. Those who are in favor of maintaining nuclear power even say, "An accident like one in Fukushima will never occur again." Japan should squarely face this serious nuclear crisis and consider whether the country should revive its reliance on atomic power.

    Shortly after the outbreak of the disaster, the then administration of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) reversed Japan's energy policy and set a goal of eliminating atomic power stations by the 2030s. However, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led government that was launched in late 2012 retracted the previous administration's strategy, and adopted a policy of maintaining nuclear power while aiming to decrease Japan's reliance on atomic energy for power generation.

    In deciding on a power supply configuration for 2030, the LDP-led administration placed priority on reducing near-term costs. The government's policy-making process returned to the pre-disaster system without trying to reflect public opinion.

    The Mainichi Shimbun has been of the view that restarting atomic power stations is inevitable under certain conditions if Japan is to pursue a society without nuclear power and pay close attention to economic and social risks involving the use of such energy. However, it must be premised on broad consensus among the public. Ensuring the safety of residents in areas around nuclear plants is a prerequisite for restarting nuclear power plants.

    True, regulations on safety measures have been revised. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) independent of the executive branch of the government has been established and regulatory standards have been stiffened. Safety measures have also been beefed up to include responses to serious nuclear accidents.

    However, Japan has only improved its defective safety measures to meet global standards. Measures to protect residents from radiation are still not subject to regulatory standards and the NRA is not responsible for checking regional disaster prevention plans and resident evacuation plans. Japan should review these matters since such safety measures are subject to regulatory standards in the United States.

    Lessons from problems involving the chain of command in response to the nuclear disaster and confusion over disclosure of information to the public have not been put to good use. Furthermore, it recently came to light that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled Fukushima plant, found an in-house manual containing criteria for judging nuclear reactor core meltdowns nearly five years after the accident, showing that the utility could have declared much earlier that meltdowns occurred at the power station. This reflects the failure to re-examine the way relevant information is disclosed.

    Kyushu Electric Power Co. has stated recently that it will not construct a seismic isolated building, which will serve as a key building for responses to an accident, on the premises of nuclear plants it intends to reactivate.

    These attitudes of power companies have raised serious questions about their awareness of the need to enhance safety measures at nuclear plants. If power companies believe that it is all right if they only meet regulatory standards, it could lead to the revival of the myth of the infallible safety of nuclear plants. Both the NRA and operators of atomic power stations should continue to warn that serious accidents could occur at such plants and regularly review how to respond to accidents.

    At the end of last month, three former executives of TEPCO were indicted over the nuclear disaster after a prosecution inquest panel concluded for the second time that the three deserve prosecution. The move is in line with public sentiment as there are apparently numerous members of the public who are dissatisfied with the fact that nobody has been held criminally responsible for the disaster. A system that fails to clarify responsibility for serious accidents has remained unchanged since the Fukushima accident. It is necessary to make it clear specifically who should take responsibility for a serious nuclear accident and how.

    It is also a serious problem that the government has been unable to drastically change its policy of promoting the nuclear fuel cycle project -- in which fuel spent at nuclear plants is reprocessed and reused at power stations -- even though the project has been deadlocked. If the government is to continue the project as it is, Japan would have to operate nuclear reactors to consume plutonium generated through the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, running counter to phasing out of nuclear power. The government is trying to continue reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, but it rather should consider burying such waste deep underground.

    Even if Japan were to completely eliminate nuclear power, the country would not be able to avoid the final disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Following the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the government has changed the way to select candidate sites for final disposal facilities, and is set to announce a "hopeful" candidate site from a scientific viewpoint by the end of this year. However, questions remain over how to form consensus among members of the public over the matter. The government does not appear truly enthusiastic about settling the issue. If the government is to go ahead with reactivation of idled nuclear reactors without addressing the issue, it would represent a return to the pre-disaster atomic energy policy.

    Judging from these circumstances, critics might lament that Japan failed to learn anything essential from the nuclear disaster. However, it is important to solve all these problems one by one without giving up hope. Public awareness of the need to save electric power has not been completely lost, even if it may have diminished. Last summer, there was enough electric power despite the scorching heat, largely because of efforts to cut back on electric power consumption.

    Another way to prevent moves to revive Japan's reliance on atomic power may be to reform the electric power supply system by eliminating power companies' regional monopolies. While promoting transparent competition, power suppliers should be encouraged to introduce renewable energy and the public should be urged to reduce power consumption, both to the maximum extent. Japan still has these options. The country should take the opportunity of the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the nuclear disaster to pursue a society that does not depend on nuclear power.

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