Japanese regulator caves to the nuclear industry and government pressure – but still no restart for Sendai

Energy Shift Parade in Tokyo. 06/11/2011 © Greenpeace / Unknown

As with all things nuclear, things are not always what they seem.

Good example – today’s decision on the so called restarting of the Sendai reactors by the Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), the best nuclear regulator in the world, according to the Abe government.

The five NRA commissioners decided that a proposal submitted by Kyushu Electric, owner of the Sendai reactors, complies with new guidelines brought in after the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear catastrophe.

What the commissioners actually did was capitulate to pressure from Japan’s infamous nuclear village – the same industry and government alliance that created the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Fukushima Anniversary Protest in Tokyo. 03/10/2013 © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace

The decision really means that Kyushu Electric has moved restarting the Sendai reactors forward a bit, but it’s still not a restart approval. It doesn’t mean the NRA has certified the reactors as safe to operate or that they will restart anytime soon.

Why the confusion?

In part, it’s a savvy political strategy and a deliberate effort by the regulator, acting for the nuclear utilities and the Abe government, to signal that nuclear power is back in Japan.

The timing is no accident. In a few days, Japan celebrates an entire year without a single commercial nuclear reactor operating. It’s a powerful symbolic moment and a concrete demonstration that nuclear power, and its inherent risks, is unnecessary for the third largest global economy, with a population of 130 million people.

This is a major body blow to the nuclear industry both in Japan and globally. It’s a lesson the nuclear industry and its government backers would rather the public did not learn.

When the Ohi 4 reactor in Fukui prefecture was shut down on September 15th 2013, Japan became completely nuclear-free. A year later Japan is still nuclear-free. Many of the remaining 48 nuclear power reactors in Japan will stay shutdown permanently. Most of those that may restart will not do so for years to come.

The Abe government is desperate to prevent people from grasping that the world’s third largest nuclear reactor program has failed to generate any electricity for 12 months. In that year, there have been no blackouts or brownouts, the trains still run, the lights still turn on, and smart phones are still charged.

Most people in Japan understand that the declared government policy, that nuclear power is an essential and a stable source of energy, is a myth. They will not be fooled.

Fukushima Disaster Third Anniversary Protest in Tokyo. 03/09/2014 © Kazuya Hokari / Greenpeace

The majority of the public are demanding no nuclear reactor restarts, an end to nuclear power, and a future energy system based on efficiency and renewables.

In fact, they are already creating this clean energy future with massive growth in solar PV, and significant reductions in energy demand since the Fukushima disaster.

Nuclear regulation worldwide exists to give the impression that nuclear power can be managed safely and without risk of severe accident. That is not the same as actually assuring safety and no severe risk of accidents.

The Japanese NRA, created from the discredited agencies that contributed to the Fukushima catastrophe, in the past months has revealed that it takes the side of industry instead of standing up for public safety.

The decision today highlights this wider truth. The NRA is still reviewing many remaining unresolved safety issues that scientists and citizens groups are also challenging.

So flawed is the safety case for Sendai that local citizens are seeking an injunction against Kyushu Electric and the government to stop them from operating the plant.

No restart reflects public opinion Energy Shift Parade in Tokyo. 09/11/2011 © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpeace

The latest polling shows 59% of Japanese people oppose restarting nuclear reactors, including Sendai. The NRA decision ignores the majority opinion.

The people of Japan, still suffering the ongoing tragedy of Fukushima, understand that the NRA is not protecting the public but only the interests of an industry in crisis.

The plan of the Abe administration and electric utilities to return Japan to nuclear power is in disarray, with no early restart for the Sendai reactors, and ever-increasing challenges for the other 46 reactors.

Sendai may make headlines in Japan and elsewhere today as a step toward restarts, but it does not change that for an entire year, as of September 15th, Japan will have been nuclear-free.

This is in large part due to the commitment of the people of Japan who have taken to the streets to protest nuclear restarts, have fought and won in courts, have massively reduced energy demand, and rapidly expanded clean, renewable solar PV.

This is impressive leadership from the people has advanced Japan’s future despite the determination of the Abe Government and dirty energy industries to drag Japan backward into the energy dark ages.

The people have proven their commitment to a clean energy future, and they’ve shown the world that it is possible. It is happening now.

Kendra Ulrich is an energy campaigner with Greenpeace International.

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