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2011年7月18日 (月)


--The Asahi Shuimbun, July 13
EDITORIAL/ Seeking a society without nuclear power generation: Nuclear-phase out roadmap needed soon

Editor's Note:

This is the second of a five-part editorial series proposing ways for Japan to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear power generation for its energy supply.

* * *

The basic principle for phasing out nuclear power generation should be shutting down old reactors that have reached the end of their planned life span without building new ones.



The No. 1 reactor of the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., is already 40 years old.

It was the third oldest of all the reactors that were in operation in Japan.

As for the two older reactors--the No. 1 reactor at Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture and the No. 1 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Mihama Nuclear Power Plant in the same prefecture--the government has approved a 10-year extension of their service life.

Given that both are located close to an active fault, the two reactors should be decommissioned swiftly.

Fortunately, old reactors are small in capacity.

That means closing them when they reach 40 would not make a big dent in Japan's total power generation.

Assuming that the Fukushima No. 1 plant will be scrapped, if all reactors are shut down after 40 years of operation, total power generation capacity of the nuclear power plants in Japan will fall by 20 percent in 2021 and by 50 percent in 2029.

It will not be until the end of 2049 that all existing reactors go out of service.

This will be too slow progress toward a nuclear-free future.

What should be done swiftly is to work out new safety standards and disaster prevention plans based on the lessons learned from the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

These standards and plans should not be used for the construction of a new reactor.

They should be used as criteria for determining the fates of existing reactors.

Reactors judged to be technologically difficult to reinforce or too costly to be economically viable should be closed even if they have yet to reach the end of their life spans.

What kind of criteria would be needed?

The criteria for the strength of the equipment and facilities of atomic power stations should be renewed in line with ongoing discussions at the government's Central Disaster Prevention Council to make sure the plants will be able to withstand the most destructive earthquake and tsunami that could possibly happen from a scientific point of view.

It is also important to establish an effective crisis management system to minimize damage when an accident occurs.

The current system must be redesigned fundamentally from the viewpoint of how to get a grasp of what is happening and how to respond to the situation when multiple problems arise simultaneously at a nuclear power plant.

The disaster prevention system also needs to be revamped totally.

In most past nuclear accidents, the evacuation zone was a 10-km radius around the plant.

The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, however, caused damage in areas more than 30 km away from the site.

Expanding the evacuation zone sharply increases the number of people and local governments affected.

It is necessary to assess carefully the viability of any plan for such large-scale evacuation.

Considering all these factors, it would be wise to decommission the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 reactors at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, operated by Chubu Electric Power Co.
These reactors have been shut down in response to Prime Minister Naoto Kan's request.

In addition to the fact that the plant is located in an area believed to have a high risk of being hit by a major earthquake, the enormous economic and social damage a serious accident at the facility would cause clearly argues for decommissioning the reactors.

The history of nuclear power development in Japan shows, however, that new safety standards and plans tend to be eviscerated through actual implementation.

Electric power companies have been generally very selective in publishing the information they have about geological conditions and possible tsunami, holding back inconvenient facts.

In order to break through the wall of uncooperativeness, it is vital to create an effective system for critical assessments of the safety of nuclear power plants by independent experts.

For one, the ability of the Nuclear Safety Commission, which has failed to perform its expected functions in responding to the Fukushima disaster, needs to be enhanced significantly.
Experts in seismology and other relevant areas other than nuclear energy should be added to the panel, and the panel should be given legal powers concerning regular safety checks of reactors.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency should be separated from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has been promoting nuclear power generation, and refashioned into a tactical unit of the new Nuclear Safety Commission similar in function to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

These newly enhanced regulatory and supervisory organizations would be in charge of developing new safety standards and making decisions concerning the operation and decommissioning of reactors.

Another key organizational issue that needs to be considered is who should be responsible for operating nuclear power plants.
Should the electric utilities keep running these facilities as they are now?

Or should the government take over the operations by nationalizing the facilities?

Or should a new entity be created for the business?

As reactors are closed, the local governments around the facilities will face the challenge of finding new sources of revenue and jobs.

There are serious concerns within the local communities about falls in revenue and job losses that would be caused by plant closures.

The process of decommissioning a reactor, however, will take 20 to 30 years.

During that time, the central government should work with the affected prefectures and municipalities to map out a new future for the local communities not dependent on nuclear facilities.

With regard to the immediate issue of restarting reactors after regular safety checks, the decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis by using the new safety standards.

The industry ministry acted in a rash and careless manner when it declared all the offline reactors safe in June to ensure swift resumption of their operations.

The announced plans for new "stress tests" to assess the safety of reactors caused great confusion because of Kan's lack of strategic thinking.

But such tests are necessary for securing the safety of reactors.

They must not be mere rituals to restart the reactors.

What the government needs to do is to scrutinize the specific safety conditions of individual reactors, such as their ages and distances from active faults, to identify the reactors with dangerously large risks.

At the very least, the government should not approve the restarting of reactors that have been in service for 40 years or longer.

As for the reactors that have been judged to be adequately safe through these procedures, the government should allow them to start running again only after winning sufficient support from the local communities.

In order to phase out nuclear power generation to move the nation toward a clean-energy future while tackling all these challenges, it is important to find new energy sources for the period of transition.

That's because it will be some time before renewable energy sources become mainstream.

One promising candidate is natural gas.

Power generation using natural gas emits carbon dioxide.

But breakthroughs in electricity production technology in recent years have reduced the amount of CO2 emissions from a natural gas power plant to about 40 percent of the emissions from a coal-burning plant.

Natural gas could be used for micro-power generation for individual households and buildings, and exhaust heat could be used to supply hot water.

A natural gas power plant causes less waste of energy than a nuclear power plant that has to throw away the produced heat.

Global natural gas supply is gaining in stability thanks in large part to increasing use of shale gas, or natural gas produced from shale, or a rock formed by the consolidation of clay, mud and the like and found deep underground.
It is now possible to tap shale gas reserves in the United States, while large-scale projects to develop shale gas deposits are under way in Russia and Australia.

Depending totally on renewable energy sources as alternatives to atomic energy would not promote the efforts to reduce the nation's dependence on nuclear power.

It is necessary to consider tapping a wide range of energy sources.

Political momentum is also important for pushing the nation toward a nuclear-free future.

Behind Germany's recent decision to close all of its nuclear power plants is the history of the political movement echoing antinuclear sentiment among the public that has been led by environmentalist parties like the Greens since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In Japan as well, there have been movements against the construction of new nuclear power plants and strong public reactions to the Chernobyl accident.

But nuclear power generation has never become a major political issue in this country.

The Fukushima disaster, however, has provoked calls for reconsidering the nuclear energy policy within the Japanese political community.

We hope the government will hammer out and announce a detailed and reliable road map for the nuclear phase-out by the next general election.


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