Kyushu earthquakes expose unaddressed nuclear reactor risks — SimplyInfo

Here is a good critique by SimplyInfo that questions safety standards surrounding the shutdown of nuclear reactors in the event of multiple earthquakes and aftershocks. This article also contains sources that explain how seismic movement data is collected, seismic safety concerns and the seismic movement during the 2011 earthquake at Fukushima Daiichi.

Japan split over restart of first nuclear reactor since Fukushima disaster — The Guardian

” An otherwise unremarkable town in south-west Japan will be propelled this week to the forefront of the country’s biggest experiment with nuclear power since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

After months of debate about safety, Japan will begin producing nuclear energy for the first time in almost two years close to the town of Satsumasendai as early as Tuesday.

Restarting one of the Sendai nuclear plant’s two 30-year-old reactors represents a victory for the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who insists that without nuclear energy the Japanese economy will buckle beneath the weight of expensive oil and gas imports.

But his call for Japan to confront its Fukushima demons has been greeted with scepticism by most voters, whose opposition to nuclear restarts remains firm, even in the face of rising electricity bills.

Just over four years since Fukushima Daiichi had a triple meltdown, triggering the world’s worst nuclear crisis for 25 years, Japan remains deeply divided over its future energy mix.

The 2011 disaster forced the evacuation of 160,000 people and the closure of all the country’s 48 working reactors for safety checks.

Opinions among the 100,000 residents of Satsumasendai range from anxiety to relief.

Local campaigners say the plant operators – Kyushu Electric – and local authorities have yet to explain how they would quickly evacuate tens of thousands of residents in the event of a Fukushima-style meltdown.

“There are schools and hospitals near the plant, but no one has told us how children and the elderly would be evacuated,” said Yoshitaka Mukohara, a representative of a group opposing the Sendai restart.

“Naturally there will be gridlock caused by the sheer number of vehicles, landslides, and damaged roads and bridges.”

A survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that only two of 85 medical institutes and 15 of 159 nursing and other care facilities within a 30 km radius of the Sendai plant had proper evacuation plans.

About 220,000 people live within a 30km radius – the size of the Fukushima no-go zone – of the Sendai plant; a 50km radius would draw in Kagoshima city and raise the number of affected people to 900,000. “I can’t begin to imagine how chaotic that would be,” Mukohara said.

Massive earthquakes of the kind that sparked the Fukushima meltdown are not the only potential hazard. The Sendai facility is surrounded by a group of five calderas, and Sakurajima, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, is just 50km away, leaving the plant exposed to volcanic ash fallout, and, in the most extreme scenario, lava flows.

There are doubts, too, about the reliability of an ageing reactor that has not been used since it was shut down for safety checks in 2011. “You wouldn’t have much faith in a car that’s been on the road for more than 30 years,” said Mukohara. “So why are we so willing to trust a nuclear reactor?”

Shaun Burnie, a nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, accused Japan’s government and nuclear industry of cutting corners in its desperation to put reactors back online.

“They are disregarding fundamental principles of nuclear safety and public health protection,” Burnie said. “The same players in the ‘nuclear village’ that delivered Japan the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy in 2011 are attempting to kick-start nuclear power again.”

Sendai reactor No 1 is one of 25 reactors being targeted for possible restarts. “We’ve finally come this far to restart the first reactor,” the trade and industry minister, Yoichi Miyazawa, told reporters recently. The plant’s second reactor is expected to go back into operation in October.

Last autumn, the Sendai reactors became the first to clear safety hurdles imposed by a revamped nuclear regulation authority. The restart was approved by 19 of the 26 assembly members in Satsumasendai, located 1,000km south-west of Tokyo, and by the pro-nuclear governor of Kagoshima prefecture, Yuichiro Ito.

With national polls showing that most Japanese oppose nuclear restarts, the town’s council is reluctant to gauge local opinion, said Ryoko Torihara, a Satsumasendai resident who is campaigning to the keep the reactors idle.

“They won’t conduct a poll of local people because they’re scared of the result,” she said. “They’re aware that Japan has fared perfectly well without nuclear power for almost two years.”

A nationwide Kyodo News poll last October found that 60% of respondents opposed an immediate return to nuclear energy, while 31% were in favour. But supporters of the restarts say the long hiatus in nuclear energy production has taken its toll on Satsumasendai’s population.

When in operation, the plant contributes up to 3bn yen (£16m) a year to the local economy, according to the local chamber of industry and commerce, much of it via 3,000 workers who descend on the town twice a year to conduct lengthy safety checks.

Satsumasendai continues to receive more than 1bn yen in annual government subsidies for hosting the reactors, but some residents complain keeping the plant shuttered for so long has sucked the life out of local commerce, with hotels, restaurants and other service industries reporting a dramatic drop in trade.

“This is my hometown and I don’t like to see its economy in trouble,” said Tetsuro Setoguchi, a 27-year-old builder. “We receive lots of subsidies for hosting the nuclear plant, and if they dry up it will be difficult for the town to function.

“Lots of jobs depend on the plant, especially in the construction industry. I’m sure that every single builder here wants the reactors to be restarted.”

Kyushu Electric, which last August received a 100bn yen bailout from a state-owned bank to survive, estimates that putting one reactor back online would help it reduce costs from burning fossil fuels by about 7.4bn yen a month. The utility is reeling from four straight years of losses, and nuclear operators across Japan say they have incurred tens of billions of dollars in losses as a result of Fukushima-enforced plant closures.

Before Fukushima, nuclear provided 30% of Japan’s energy needs, and there were plans to increase its share to around 50%. Post-Fukushima, the Abe administration has set nuclear an ambitious target of a 20-22% share of the total energy mix by 2030.

As it prepares to lead Japan into a new, uncertain age of nuclear power generation, the Sendai plant is a fortress protected by high perimeter fences and patrolled by security guards.

At a tent village set up on a windswept beach just along the coast, anti-nuclear activists refuse to accept that Japan’s imminent nuclear reboot is inevitable.

“We will do all we can to stop it,” said Yoshiharu Ogawa, who has travelled from his home near Tokyo. “The local authorities may have approved the restart, but they are completely out of touch with public opinion.” ”

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Tepco seeks foreign seal of approval to restart nuclear plant — The Japan Times

” Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s invitation to the world’s top nuclear agency to review the safety of its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility signals the utility’s desire to win international backing to resume operations at the world’s largest atomic power plant.

Kashiwazaki is Tepco’s best bet of returning to nuclear power generation, after the plant was shuttered along with the rest of Japan’s nuclear capacity following the unprecedented meltdowns at the company’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011.

Firing up its reactors would boost Tepco’s profit by as much as ¥32 billion a month, according to Tepco spokesman Tatsuhiro Yamagishi.

“They want a foreign seal of approval,” said Robert Dujarric, a director at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies of Temple University in Tokyo. “No one trusts what Tepco says. The only way they can convince Japanese residents that this is not risky is to get a foreign institution to certify them being acceptable.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency began its 11-day evaluation on Tuesday and will report its findings to Japan’s watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which has the final say on a plant’s safety. A restart would still need local government approval, which presents difficulties as the region’s governor remains a vociferous critic of Tepco.

Tepco expects to spend at least ¥270 billion to bring Kashiwazaki back online, although it says the cost is a secondary consideration. What is needed and what the IAEA brings is the “knowledge, ingenuity, and engineering capabilities to get there,” Takafumi Anegawa, Tepco’s chief nuclear officer, told a news conference at the plant on Tuesday. “Randomly spending money doesn’t assure safety.”

The NRA has visited Kashiwazaki three times since agreeing to check its reactors in 2013, although it has not given a timeline for approval, according to Tepco’s Yamagishi. NRA spokesman Taro Komine declined to comment on Kashiwazaki and the IAEA’s safety study there.

The IAEA was created in 1957 and one of its goals is to promote the safe use of nuclear energy. Tepco, meanwhile, is struggling to convince the Japanese public of improvements in its attitudes to safety amid worker deaths and irradiated water leaks at the ruined Fukushima plant.

“Of course Tepco would like them to come online,” Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Tokyo-based energy consultant Mathyos, said by email. However, “I have normally categorized it as a plant that is extremely unlikely to come online. There is huge local opposition.”

Hirohiko Izumida, three-term governor of Niigata Prefecture where the plant is located, has said restarting Kashiwazaki shouldn’t even be considered until Tepco’s safety record and handling of Fukushima are properly reviewed.

Niigata Prefecture spokesman Kenji Kiuchi declined to comment on the governor’s opinion of the IAEA review.

Restarting Kashiwazaki would boost Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan for nuclear energy to account for as much as 22 percent of the country’s total electricity supply by 2030.

Thus far, Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai reactors are the only ones to pass the NRA’s safety requirements and clear local courts. Kyushu is aiming to restart the two units this year. While the NRA judged two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama station as safe, legal hurdles have since obstructed any restart.

Tepco is seeking to restore two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki, which is located about 220 km northwest of Tokyo on coast of the Sea of Japan. Its only other nuclear plants are Fukushima No. 1, which is being decommissioned, and the nearby Fukushima No. 2 facility, which may be too tainted by its association with the 2011 disaster to ever restart.

In order to ensure Kashizawaki’s safety, Tepco says it has bolstered staff levels, built a 15 meter flood-prevention wall, and built a reservoir to store 20,000 tons of water to cool reactors in case of pump failures.

The IAEA said its primary focus will be assessing the plant’s internal operations. Three months after its review, the agency will send its report to Tepco, the NRA and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The review will not replace Japan’s regulatory process, said Peter Tarren, the IAEA’s team leader at Kashiwazaki. “Decisions about restarts of the plant are not the authority of the IAEA,” he said. ”

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Seismologist and nuclear engineer address concerns over restarting the Sendai reactors (part 2) — Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan

Speakers:
Katsuhiko Ishibashi: seismologist, emeritus professor, Kobe University
Satoshi Sato: nuclear engineer, consultant and former GE engineer

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Updated 11/6/14: Critical Mass: The country lurches towards a nuclear comeback — The Economist; Japan nuclear plant gets approval to restart — Reuters

Updated Nov. 6, 2014, The Economist: ” NEARLY four years after an earthquake and tsunami triggered the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant, Japan is moving towards a nuclear comeback. Last week the city assembly of Satsumasendai, a city in Kagoshima prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, voted to fire up two reactors in the nearby Sendai power plant, to heckling from the public gallery. It is the first plant to win approval since the disaster on March 11th 2011 and subsequent mothballing of all of Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors (two reactors were restarted at the Oi facility, in Fukui prefecture, for 14 months, before they were shut again in September last year). If, as expected, the local government approves the decision on November 7th, Sendai could be back online by early next year. That will cheer its operator, Kyushu Electric Power, but deepen the country’s division over atomic power.

Japan’s government desperately wants to put at least some of the mothballed reactors back to work to cut its huge bill for imported fuel. Tougher safety rules by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the country’s new nuclear watchdog, were supposed to have restored public faith shattered by the disaster at Fukushima. The Sendai vote is the first sign that these rules may be working. Kyushu Electric Power won the regulator’s approval partly by increasing its estimates for how much shaking the Sendai plant could withstand in the event of a quake. That, and millions of dollars in industry and government largesse lavished on Satsumasendai, helped persuade the assembly to swallow its doubts.

But many people in local towns and cities inside a probable fallout zone from a nuclear accident have been hard to convince. Kagoshima city, home to 600,000 people, is 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Sendai reactors—roughly the same distance as still uninhabitable communities north-west of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. The prefecture is also home to several active volcanoes. Such concerns recently prompted Aira city, 30km away, to vote overwhelmingly to scrap the Sendai plant. Several other local towns have demanded a say in the restarts.

The government is under no legal obligation to listen to these demands, so long as it has the approval of host communities. But as most Japanese are still opposed to nuclear power, the demands make restarts tough politically. Evacuation plans also feature heavily in a string of lawsuits launched against the nuclear plants. In May a local court ruled against restarting the Oi facility. Its operator, Kansai Electric, is appealing that decision. 

Opponents say that the government and the nuclear regulator, which has received applications to restart 20 reactors, have focused too heavily on the operational safety of plants, like resistance to shaking and proper venting in the case of a nuclear accident. In their rush to get them back online they have not concentrated enough on readying nearby communities for a future disaster. One of the loudest critics is Hirohiko Izumida, governor of Niigata prefecture, home to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s largest. In 2007 an earthquake sparked a fire at the plant, cut off roads and stranded rescue workers. Mr Izumida watched the disaster unfold on television because communication lines to his office were down. He frets about what will happen to the 440,000 people living within 30km of the plant if there is another such incident. 

Last month that plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO, which also owns the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi), told foreign inspectors that the plant was now among the safest in the world. TEPCO has applied to restart two reactors. But Mr Izumida says he wants major changes to “grossly inadequate” evacuation plans before that happens. Among his demands is devolved power for local authorities—only the prime minister can currently give an evacuation order—and the installation of nuclear bunkers in local houses. TEPCO, which has limped along since 2011, is staking its future on the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, says Katsuhiko Hayashi, a senior official in the company. First, though, it must convince Mr Izumida. “

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* * *

Posted Oct. 28, 2014: ” (Reuters) – A town in southwest Japan became the first to approve the restart of a nuclear power station on Tuesday, a step forward in Japan’s fraught process of reviving an industry left idled by the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011.

Satsumasendai, a town of 100,000 that hosts the two-reactor Kyushu Electric Power Co (9508.T) plant, is 1,000 km (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo and has long relied on the Sendai plant for government subsidies and jobs.

Nineteen of the city’s 26 assembly members voted in favor of restarting the plant while four members voted against and three abstained, a city assembly member told Reuters.

The restart of Japan’s first reactors to receive clearance to restart under new rules imposed since Fukushima is unlikely until next year as Kyushu Electric still needs to pass operational safety checks.

All 48 of the country’s nuclear reactors were gradually taken offline following Fukushima, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

An earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo, sparking triple nuclear meltdowns, forcing more than 160,000 residents to flee from nearby towns and contaminating water, food and air.

Japan has been forced to import expensive fossil fuels to replace atomic power, which previously supplied around 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is pushing to restart nuclear reactors, but has said he will defer to local authorities to approve a policy that is still unpopular with large swaths of the public.

The restart divided communities nearest to the plant, pitting the host township that gets direct benefits from siting reactors against other communities that do not reap the benefits but say they will be equally exposed to radioactive releases in the event of a disaster.

In Ichikikushikino, a town less than five km (three miles) from the Sendai plant, more than half the 30,000 residents signed a petition opposing the restart earlier this year.

In the lead-up to the local vote, officials held town halls in neighbouring towns to explain the restart, where some residents complained that the public meetings were restrictive and did not address concerns about evacuation plans.

A fire broke out at Kyushu Electric’s other nuclear plant on Tuesday, Kyodo News reported. The fire started in an auxiliary building of the idled nuclear station and was extinguished by plant workers, the agency said. There were no injuries and no release of radioactive materials, it said. ”

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*Japan’s natural perils, and promises, in the wake of Fukushima — Nassrine Azimi via The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

” The first paragraph in the first volume of A History of Japan, by the scholarly British diplomat Sir George Sansom, is a detailed description of the islands’ geology.

Writing in 1958 of the country he so loved, with its “mighty volcanic convulsions”, Sir George depicts the physical drama of peaks soaring two miles above and plunging five miles below sea level, and wisely cautions that “so immense a range of elevation within short lateral distances develops such stresses that this part of the earth’s crust is a highly unstable area….”

The Japan Landslide Society simply calls this archipelago the “Scar-Laden Islands.”

In August this year we witnessed at close range just how scar-laden: massive rains and landslides brought down entire mountaintops in many suburbs of Hiroshima, killing scores. The tragedy could well happen in other parts of the country.

Then on September 27th the sacred, unpredictable Mount Ontake erupted suddenly, trapping hundreds of climbers out to admire its famed autumn foliage. The eruption prompted a massive and dangerous rescue operation by thousands of firefighters, police and Self-Defense Forces members. Still, at least 60 people are reported dead.

In the aftermath of the eruption, the government promptly called for renewed efforts at monitoring volcanic activity. Yet Mount Ontake, listed as one of the country’s 110 active volcanos, was already under close scrutiny by the Meteorological Agency; intensifying tremors–85 on September 11 alone–had been registered but not deemed threatening.

In technology-overloaded Japan, monitoring hardly seems the problem.

Rather, volcanic eruptions–and other natural disasters–in a land perched on the edge of the Ring of Fire and straddling four tectonic plates should be considered the norm. And some scientists now worry that the magnitude 9 earthquake of March 11, 2011 may well intensify risks–this July a French geophysicist and his team released a study suggesting pressure is building on Mount Fuji, also an active volcano.

Last week the three prefectures at the foot of Mount Fuji conducted eruption drills, sobered by the experience of how ash from the Mount Ontake eruption had completely disrupted rescue operations. Similarly, earlier this month, the respected volcanologist Fujii Toshitsugu, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and head of a government-commissioned panel, challenged assumptions that the Sendai reactors in Kyushu, first in-line in the government’s schedule to reactivate dormant nuclear plants, were immune to volcanic eruptions. He suggested that heavy ash from the eruption of Mount Sakurajima — only 40 kilometers from the plant — could make reaching the plant and basic evacuation protocols quite impossible.

If natural disasters are simply unavoidable, then for a country smaller than the state of California and with more than three times the population, the presence of nuclear power plants seems, to say the least, a little akin to playing Russian roulette.

During recent Diet debates, Obuchi Yuko, then minister of economy, trade and industry and till two weeks ago an upcoming star of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, insisted that in its push to restart nuclear plants the government was adamant about ensuring the strictest safety measures, stating that such standards were similar to those of France and other advanced nations.

The comparison to France, often made, is hardly apt: France is not perennially threatened by massive earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanic eruptions, nor is it on the path of mega typhoons (like the two which battered us just this month). In the past year, alone, Japan has had hundreds of small earthquakes, while France has had five. Japan is also two-thirds smaller than France, with almost double the population. The risk factors, when it comes to nuclear power plants, are fundamentally different.

In late September, a group of us from Hiroshima returned to Fukushima, to see for ourselves how rebuilding was progressing. Of the three prefectures which took the brunt of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 Fukushima, with the decommissioned yet still precarious No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, is the one still gripped by deep uncertainty, even if both Miyagi and Iwate suffered greater human losses from the tsunami (by a factor of five in Miyagi): they have mourned, grieved, collected huge piles of tsunamis debris and are now pressing ahead with reconstruction plans.

Not Fukushima. Large swaths of the prefecture remain unsettled. Within the nuclear plant’s 20-kilometer exclusion zone most towns are empty. As we drove through the eerily silent streets of those closest to the battered plant, Tashiro Akira, a veteran investigative reporter who has written extensively on nuclear accidents, gave us rough estimates of their pre-disaster populations–and of their current status: Namie (22,000, now semi-restricted), Futaba (7,400, still abandoned), Okuma (11,515, still abandoned), Tomioka (15,800, still abandoned), Naraha (8200, now semi-restricted).

The quick money that had been flowing from TEPCO to these communities in the past decades does not seem to have left much in terms of quality buildings or a decent urban environment. But an abandoned city is nonetheless a mournful sight: curtains still in place, kitchen-ware glimpsed through a window, children’s bicycles parked outside empty homes.

In Minami Soma we visited the Farm Sanctuary, 14 kilometers from the beleaguered power plant, where an irreverent cattle farmer by the name of Yoshizawa Masami has chosen to defy authorities and remain with his animals. Called Kibo no Bokujyo (Ranch of Hope) in Japanese, it also offers a place for other farmers who have had to abandon their lands but do not know what to do with their contaminated animals. The Farm Sanctuary has become a sort of unofficial test site, to monitor the effects of radiation on animals.

But even more distant towns, like Iitate, remain in limbo. Some 45 kilometers from the plant, Iitate was initially designated a safe haven before it, too, was found to be a radioactive hotspot. Its 6000 inhabitants have now either left or can only come in during day-time hours. A superbly-built nursing home for the elderly now caters to the few remaining residents – average age 87 – who were simply too old to move. Room after room is empty – it is impossible to find staff willing or able to live and work in Iitate.

A farming and ranching community before the nuclear disaster, the only people we did see at work in Iitate were some of 3000 contract workers, whose job is to remove contaminated topsoil — part of the government’s complex and questionable decontamination policy. The topsoil, alongside leaves and other plant material, is then stuffed into thousands of black plastic containers, now scattered across the landscape. Naturally no region is willing to accept the dreaded material, despite pressures and monetary cajoling by the central government. The cleanup, which was meant to be completed this March, has just been extended by another two years.

As we viewed the landscape, the idea that Iitate and other cities affected by the nuclear accident could soon return to business as usual — through diligent scrubbing of roofs and removal of topsoil — seemed far-fetched indeed: like the rest of Fukushima Iitate is covered with mountains and forests, exposed to natural elements. In her thoughtful and meticulously researched article entitled ‘Touching the Grass: Science, Uncertainty and Everyday life from Chernobyl to Fukushima’[1] Tessa Morris-Suzuki points to research on the topsoil removal, which can temporarily lower radiation levels, but the effects of which are dubious as ‘radiation accumulated in leaf litter in the mountain forests is constantly washed down into farm fields by the flow of water, raising the levels of radioactivity again.’

Years (and billions of yen) could well be spent shifting topsoil, but would any young family be willing to raise kids there?

Dr. Kurokawa Kiyoshi, chairman of the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigative Committee has famously, and succinctly, quipped of the government’s cleanup effort: “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.”[2]

Yet admitting the complexities raises fundamental problems for authorities, from the practical –i.e. compensation and relocation issues — to the deeply ethical: if one single nuclear accident is proving so debilitating, how then, in the face of deep popular opposition, to justify bringing the country’s dormant plants on-line, as the Abe government wishes to do? And if even Japan, a technology giant, is to put the nail to the coffin of its own towns in the aftermath of a nuclear accident, how to justify its planned exports to other nations?

So Fukushima’s residents linger in uncertainty. The elderly, with less to fear of radiation’s long-term effects, are resigned to return home; not those with young children. Many men, for the sake of jobs, would return but women, more concerned about their family’s health, would not. The pressure on every family is huge. The new term genpatsu rikon (atomic divorce) captures the personal tragedies.

Morris-Suzuki highlights the difficulty, heightened in the Internet age, for ordinary people to live with the kind of insidious uncertainty that has become the hallmark of environmental, and especially nuclear, pollution. As night fell, we had to leave Iitate in time for the curfew that bans people from entering the area beyond certain hours. Driving down the mountain and past one dark, abandoned house after another, I better understood how tired the citizens of Fukushima were of the flow of visiting and pontificating delegates — scientists and central authorities, singers, actors, upcoming politicians, idealistic students, well-intentioned foreigners… At the end of the day, however, we all left.

Hence a certain listlessness in Fukushima, that seems to afflict everyone and, contrary to most places, the young in particular. The welcoming and valiant senior staff at the fisheries association we visited near Iwaki City seemed reassured by their brand new machines sent to test radiation levels of incoming fish every week; the younger staff admitted readily that manning the complicated machinery was at times quite beyond their competence. In Koriyama, one of Fukushima Prefecture’s three largest cities, the senior architect I interviewed expressed hope that large-scale building plans would restart soon. His younger colleague, father of young children, sat stone-faced, looking more doubtful.

There are those who point at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the ‘reassuring’ story, of the possibility of revival after nuclear catastrophe. This is to forget the price paid and the discriminations faced by the survivors and at least two generations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens. It is also to forget the differences between 1945 and 2011: there were no hand-held Geiger counters in every household then, no Internet to spread news of contaminated soil, fish, water or hotspots. Fukushima Prefecture was a prime food producer in Japan before the accident: when or even whether it shall retrieve that label again, in a globalized world where reputations are so easily made or broken, is an open question.

Still, by now Prime Minister Abe may have little political capital to lose on account of the physically close yet psychologically distant Fukushima. But as Andrew DeWit of Tokyo’s Rikkyo University and an astute observer of Japanese energy policies has written in the Asia-Pacific Journal (http://japanfocus.org/-Andrew-DeWit/4174), the government’s reluctance to declare a stark and clear commitment to renewables (and to the eventual closure of nuclear plants), is a significant opportunity loss.

Japan, DeWit writes, is hardly the “resource-poor” country pro-nuclear politicians so love to invoke. In terms of renewables, it sits among top contenders, with abundant thermal energy sources — the bright side of being so disaster-prone. It is “blessed” with powerful winds and typhoons, waves, volcanoes, vast forests (68 percent of the land), torrential rivers and summers of scorching, ever-present sun.

Naysayers point to the challenges facing Germany, which after decades of an intense national debate, took the message of the Fukushima nuclear accident to heart and did what everyone had expected Japan to do: bring its reliance on nuclear energy to an end. Yes, Germany now struggles with its carbon emissions, but these will decline with time while the advantages — including job creation – of Germany’s shift to green energy are already starting to outweigh the minuses.[3] The question to ask is rather what advantages could Japan have reaped, had its political leaders, even in the last few years, been half as ‘green‘ as their German counterparts? It is enough to note how absent is anything close to a Green Party in mainstream Japanese politics to understand the obstacles to a fullscale commitment to green energy strategies in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

There are nevertheless bright spots to be found in a number of localities. The architect Ito Toyo — winner of last year’s Pritzker prize and an intelligent and compelling voice for the reconstruction of the Tohoku region after the March 2011 disasters — has led experimental reconstruction projects in the affected areas. Ito has written of the need to question, as architects but even more as human beings what to do henceforth, of the need to ‘go back to square one and reexamine the essential meaning of architecture.’[4] The same shift in thinking must apply to all of us, in particular the ‘experts’.

Poll after poll have shown a steady majority of the Japanese far more willing than their politicians to embrace renewables and the “fifth fuel”, conservation, rather than return to nuclear power. Given Japan’s technological strengths, with the right leadership, policies and technologies, a shift is ultimately possible. However well-packaged, nuclear accident cleanup just remains too difficult — devouring massive time, money and energy, and none can ascertain that it works.

From time immemorial, Japan’s greatest perils and privileges have come from Nature. This remains unchanged – or rather has become even more compelling – in the early 21st century. Ancient rites and rituals, seemingly arcane or irrelevant to challenges of our modern age, are but reminders of this immutable reality. Last year the Grand Shrine of Ise, the country’s most sacred sanctuary, held its Sengu — renewal — ceremony, conducted since 690 AD at 20-year intervals. The rite has immensely practical value: the intricate architecture and carpentry of the structures, for example, demands intense and regular transmission of elaborate building techniques from generation to generation; the massive timbers require upkeep of designated forests and watersheds, and the special food offerings impose careful cultivation of nearby rice paddies, nurturing of fruit groves, care of fishing and gaming areas, the consistent sharing of knowledge about the land’s ecology. They also bring, century after century, not just spiritual well-being but enormous revenues to Mie Prefecture.

Location. Location. Location. George Sansom was right, to start his history of Japan with geology. Or as my late father would constantly remind us: ‘Never, ever, forget your geography’. ”

source to Nassrine Azimi’s article with internal references and photographs