New Internationalist

Nuclear debate intensifies post-Fukushima

May 2011

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

jeanbaptisteparis under a CC Licence
Protesters at an anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo, 27 March 2011. The signs read: ‘Change energy policy’ and ‘Do not sprinkle radioactive material’. jeanbaptisteparis under a CC Licence

It couldn’t have been predicted,’ claimed Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – the operators of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima – after the earthquake that struck northern Japan in March. However, the Fukushima crisis is exactly the kind of disaster that Japan’s anti-nuclear lobby has been warning of for decades. The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), a Tokyo-based network of scientists, activists and concerned citizens, spearheads the movement for a non-nuclear Japan. It has repeatedly warned that Japan’s nuclear power plants will, over their operating lives, experience stronger earthquakes and larger tsunamis than they were designed to withstand.

The CNIC has documented an endemic lack of preparedness for earthquakes at Japan’s nuclear facilities. In the past decade, earthquakes of a much lower intensity than the recent disaster have damaged nuclear reactors. The July 2007 Niigata Chuetsu earthquake caused TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (KK) nuclear plant – then the largest nuclear plant in the world – to leak radioactive water into the Sea of Japan. After the accident, KK was completely shut down for 21 months to allow upgrades to its seismic proofing. Local residents continue to protest against TEPCO’s decision to partially restart the plant and are angry at TEPCO’s opaque decision-making. According to the CNIC, information released concerning the safety of the plant in the event of another major earthquake inadequately addresses citizens’ concerns.

The CNIC reports that non-transparency, falsification of data and corruption are rife within Japan’s nuclear industry. According to the CNIC, TEPCO was involved in ‘falsification of fuel quality control data… for Kansai Electric Power Company’s Takahama-3&4 nuclear power plants’, and also in cover-ups at other plants. During the Fukushima disaster, a number of reliable sources criticized TEPCO’s slow response to requests for information. Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto revealed that for an hour after discovering the damage caused by the earthquake, TEPCO failed to inform the government. The CNIC filled the information vacuum by providing online broadcasts with analysis from top Japanese nuclear scientists. But as Dr Goto Masashi, who worked on the design of the Daiichi reactors, explains, ‘the information disclosed by TEPCO… is very limited, making it difficult for independent analysts to understand what is happening’.

The Fukushima accident has produced intense debate on the use of nuclear power in Japan and around the world. Since Japan has almost no domestic fossil-fuel reserves, nuclear power has been a national priority since 1973 and its 55 nuclear reactors generate approximately a third of the country’s electricity. Japan had been planning to increase this amount to 50 per cent by 2030 but a public backlash against this policy is now likely.

Meanwhile, the oil and coal lobbies have gone into overdrive, exploiting the Fukushima disaster. Increased carbon-heavy energy production would be as tragic as the prospect of future nuclear accidents – and as unwelcome as the opportunism of those still lobbying for 19th-century solutions to the global energy crisis.

Tina Burrett and Christopher Simons

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 442 This feature was published in the May 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 442

New Internationalist Magazine issue 442
Issue 442

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