When Naoto Kan pledged to lead Japan to a nuclear-free future last July he was met by a barrage of criticism from bureaucrats, business leaders and members of his own Cabinet.
Less than 10 months later, with the No. 3 reactor of the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido taken offline late on May 5 for a periodic inspection, Kan’s idealistic vision is about to become a reality, if only temporarily.
And, of course, he is no longer the prime minister.
In actual fact, there has been no concerted policy behind Japan’s nuclear-free reality. The Tomari reactor is the last operational reactor in the country, and, despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s determination to get reactors back online ahead of peak demand this summer, the route back to a nuclear-powered Japan is far from clear.
For much of the past year, the pattern has been for the central government to waver and send mixed messages on the nuclear issue, and for its rushed restart efforts then to founder on local obduracy.
While central government bureaucrats and politicians continue to warn of the dire consequences of the current impasse, there is no sign of the pattern being broken.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) first instructed electric power companies to implement emergency safety measures at their nuclear plants in late March 2011, about three weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
A few months later, in June, then industry minister Banri Kaieda declared the nation's nuclear plants to be safe and visited Saga Prefecture to ask Governor Yasushi Furukawa to approve resumption of operations at the Genkai nuclear power plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co.
However, other local government officials raised concerns that it was too early to make such a decision due to the absence of a thorough-going study of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
They said safety standards based on such an examination were absolutely vital.
The Fukui prefectural government, which is home to 13 commercial nuclear plants and is at the center of the current controversy over the restart of the Oi nuclear power plant within its jurisdiction, said it was too early to resume operations.
In response, the Kan administration introduced stress tests as a means of confirming the safety of nuclear reactors in July. The idea was that the tests would form the basis for decisions on whether to resume operations.
Under the new structure, a reactor could be restarted after an appraisal by NISA of stress test results submitted by electric power companies and confirmation by the Nuclear Safety Commission of NISA’s appraisal.
Since October, electric power companies have submitted stress test reports on 19 reactors, including the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi plant in Fukui. The Oi reactors have completed the appraisal and confirmation process.
But it is now being pointed out that the stress tests are actually designed to calculate the safety leeway at nuclear reactors and do not constitute a full assessment of whether it is safe to restart a reactor.
Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa refused to recognize the stress test results as a condition for approving the resumption of operations at the Oi reactors and instead asked the central government to compile provisional safety standards.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, industry minister Yukio Edano, and two other Cabinet ministers began work on compiling those new standards on April 3. But, just 10 days later, the same four ministers decreed the Oi reactors were safe and agreed that a resumption of operations would be appropriate. Edano visited Fukui Prefecture and asked Nishikawa to agree to the resumption of operations.
Central government officials have taken the position that they have a clear understanding of the causes of the Fukushima nuclear accident and officials of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are still being sent out to explain the safety of nuclear plants to local government officials.
But the fact is that official examination of the Fukushima nuclear accident is not complete. The central government's own Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations has not compiled its final report.
Local governments that host nuclear plants have criticized the central government for moving too quickly. They say the government has failed to produce convincing new safety measures and disaster management procedures, governing for instance the evacuation of residents, informed by lessons from the Fukushima crisis.
In the case of the Oi reactors, it is still unclear if the governments of surrounding prefectures, such as Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka, will give their consent, and the resumption of other reactors across Japan is also uncertain.
NISA has completed its appraisal of the report on the Ikata No. 3 reactor operated by Shikoku Electric Power Co., but the confirmation process by the Nuclear Safety Commission is still pending.
One of the reasons for the lack of progress on Ikata is also a vivid demonstration of the disarray in the central government’s nuclear policy. It is unclear whether the commission will have enough time to conduct its confirmation procedures because its officials do not know how long the commission itself will continue to exist. Nobody knows when the new nuclear regulatory agency that was supposed to replace the commission will be established.
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