Second reactor restart: Japan pushes forward with obsolete and risky nuclear power

Today’s restart of the Sendai 2 nuclear reactor shows yet again President Abe’s disregard for public safety as his government clings to outdated and risky nuclear power.

Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Greenpeace activist holds a protest sign in front of the station.25 Feb, 2015 © Masaya Noda / Greenpeace

Here’s the thing: Neither of the two nuclear reactors recently restarted at Japan’s Sendai nuclear power plant are needed. The country has just enjoyed nearly two years of being nuclear-free. Contrary to the fear-mongering predictions of an energy crisis, it simply didn’t happen. The trains still ran, everyone’s lights turned on, their smartphones stayed charged.

Prime Minister Abe’s energy policy has been shown to be an utter failure. Rather than paving the way for renewable energy, his administration has instead erected roadblocks, has maintained an unrealistic commitment to risky nuclear reactors, and has chosen to push forward with dirty fossil fuels.  

Today’s restart of the Sendai 2 nuclear reactor only serves to put the Japanese people at increased unacceptable and unnecessary risk.

In giving the green light for the restart, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has once more betrayed the public trust by ignoring significant safety issues as well as both their own and international guidelines.

The NRA approved an assessment by Sendai’s operator Kyushu Electric Power which excluded major seismic risks at the plant and violated the NRA’s own post-Fukushima safety guidelines. On top of that, analysis commissioned by Greenpeace this year showed that the NRA also accepted a flawed volcano risk analysis from Kyushu Electric Power about the active volcano Mount Sakurajima, just 50km from Sendai.

Sendai nuclear power plants in Kagoshima prefecture, Japan. 25 Feb, 2015 © Masaya Noda / Greenpeace

Instead of protecting the public as it is supposed to, the NRA has given in to pressure from President Abe and the nuclear industry. It needs to remember who it’s supposed to be serving: people not the utilities’ bottom line.

Of course, supporters of nuclear power will hail this as another victory when it’s nothing of the kind. In reality, despite massive pressure from the politically-powerful nuclear utilities, the dogged support of the Abe government and ruling political party, and the PR campaigns of pro-nuclear international agencies – like the IAEA – to minimize the public opinion impact of the Fukushima disaster, Japan has only two reactors online four and a half years after the beginning of the ongoing nuclear crisis.

While the number of operating reactors in Japan should be zero, the fact that these powerful entities have only been successful in restarting two out of a one-time fleet of 54 is a testament to the strength of the public opposition to the restart of Japan’s nuclear fleet. All Japanese nuclear utilities are facing insurmountable safety issues at their power plants together with mounting political, public, and legal challenges.

Abe and the nuclear industry are stuck in the past, leaving the country without leadership to cope with the challenges of the present. Just look at the government target of nuclear power generating 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030. It’s complete fantasy.

An analysis released by Greenpeace in April 2015 shows that the amount electricity generated by nuclear will far more likely be between 2 and 8 percent.

You only have to look at Japan’s 43 remaining shuttered nuclear reactors to see why. They have multiple safety issues, such as seismic faults located at reactor sites and the fact these reactors are rapidly aging. This, together with public opposition, means many reactors are likely to be shut down permanently.

To make matters more difficult for nuclear, the liberalisation of Japan’s electricity market in 2016 will expose large nuclear utilities to competition, especially from the country’s clean, safe and rapidly expanding renewable energy industry.

Nuclear energy simply cannot and will not make any significant contribution to Japan’s energy mix, now or in the foreseeable future. So why isn’t Japan’s government creating policies that support the transition to safe, clean renewable energy rather than risking the safety of Japanese citizens with dangerous and outdated nuclear energy?

Meanwhile, the people living close to the Sendai reactors have fought – and will keep fighting – for their right to live free from the threat posed by nuclear power.

At the end of April this year, a request for an injunction against the restart of Sendai was rejected by the courts. The plaintiffs filed an appeal of the decision shortly afterwards on May 6th. While the injunction appeal process continues, the main court case against the operation of the Sendai reactors is ongoing. The next court hearing on the case is scheduled for December 10th. The fight on Sendai is far from over.

Justin McKeating is a nuclear blogger for Greenpeace International, based in the UK.

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