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Atomic reactor restarted in Japan, despite overwhelming public opposition  

Image: The Sendai nuclear power plant is located 40 km (25 mi) from the active volcano Mount Sakurajima in Japan. Photo: courtesy of Kimon Berlin.A 30-year old nuclear reactor in Sendai, in southwestern Japan, began powering up on August 11, amid much controversy, local active volcanoes and nationwide, and even worldwide, opposition, including by former nuclear power industry workers.

The restart is the first allowed under Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority post-Fukushima reformed safety rules. Sendai had been shut down in May 2011, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear catastorphe began, and has not operated since, till now.

Although the restart may mark a "victory" for the pro-nuclear Prime Minister Abe administration, it is a loss for public health, safety, and the environment. Abe's insistence on disregarding 2 to 1 opposition to the restart amongst the Japanese public may someday cost him and his party at the polls, as well.

And although Abe's Liberal Democratic Party remains true to its 1950s pro-nuclear power roots, it has suffered some significant defections, including Abe's own mentor: the still very popular former Prime Minister, Koizumi, who served from 2001 to 2006, is now an outspoken opponent to nuclear power.

Of Japan's 48 operable atomic reactors not destroyed at Fukushima Daiichi (Units 1, 2, and 3 melted down; Unit 4 exploded, despite not operating on 3/11/11; Units 5 and 6 were retired, due to the site's dangerous radioactive contamination), few to none have operated at all since the nuclear catastrophe began over four years ago. The long reactor shut down, showing that Japan does not need nuclear power, has been won by a grassroots, nationwide anti-nuclear groundswell, joined by many elected officials, and even some judges who have ruled in favor of citizen lawsuits, blocking restarts.

However, the Sendai restart has been allowed by a pro-nuclear prefectural governor, a majority pro-nuclear municipal council, and the recent rejection of a citizen lawsuit, despite very significant volcanic risks in the area. (see photo, left)

Residents are concerned that, despite the lessons that should have been learned from the Fukushima disaster, evacuation plans are not adequate, particularly for medical care facilities and schools.

“An Asahi Shimbun survey revealed that 66 percent of medical institutions and 49 percent of social welfare facilities within 30 km of nuclear power plants across Japan have not compiled mandatory evacuation plans specifying evacuation destinations, routes and transportation means to be used in the event of an accident.” About 220,000 people live within 30 km (20 mi) of the Sendai nuclear facility, and 900,000 live within 50 km (31 mi). Evacuating even a fraction of these people would be a Herculean task.

Beyond Nuclear recently reported on a Washington, D.C. event, featuring two medical doctors from Fukushima Medical University, that revealed a significant need to learn and apply lessons from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, more than four years after it began.

Two days before the restart, about 2,000 protesters marched at Sendai in oppostion, contending that Kyushu Electric, the company that owns and operates the reactor, has not accomplished the necessary safety enhancements to begin operation. In addition, some note that the 30-year old facility may not be reliable because of age-related degradation.

Notable among those opposing the restart are survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and the former Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, who attended the August 9 Sendai action. Numerous commentators noted the ironic restart date for the Sendai atomic reactor, right after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings' 70th anniversaries.

Former Prime Minister Kan has testified that, amidst the chaotic first days of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe, he ordered secretive contingency planning for the evacuation of metro Tokyo, or even all of northeast Japan -- 30 to 50 million people -- if a "demonic chain reaction" of reactor meltdowns and high-level radioactive waste storage pool fires unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi, Fukushima Daini, and Tokai nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

While local governments in Japan are responsible for emergency preparedness, and preventing radiation exposure of their residents, they have no say in whether a reactor restarts if it is hosted by a nearby jurisdiction. The editorial in the Asahi Shimbun contends that “(n)uclear reactors should be considered to be too dangerous if the local governments of areas that can be affected by accidents involving the reactors refuse to support their operations. These reactors should be decommissioned as soon as possible…(o)ne vital lesson from the catastrophe is that the mere existence of a nuclear reactor poses serious safety risks.”

Sendai receives 1 billion yen (over $8 million) per year in federal subsidies to host the nuclear facility, and local authorities voted to approve the restart, yet no poll was conducted among the local population by the pro-nuclear municipality to gauge the public’s wishes. This was widely believed to be because the results would have revealed widespread public opposition. The facility’s second reactor is scheduled for start up in October 2015.