Government and utilities shaken by high court challenge to public trust in Japan’s nuclear authority — The Japan Times

” Wednesday’s ruling by the Hiroshima High Court halting the planned restart of a nuclear reactor in Ehime Prefecture has cast doubt on the judgment of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority — which had approved the restart under stricter post-Fukushima guidelines — shocking the government and utilities across the nation.

The ruling deals a heavy blow to a plan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to bring more reactors back online, and is sure to prompt the government and utilities to keep a closer eye on similar cases continuing across the country.

Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer representing local residents, called the ruling the “most important” since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, spurred by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

About 40 court cases — including those seeking injunctions — were filed in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown disaster. But while district courts have ordered some reactors stopped, each shutdown decision has been overturned by a high court.

“This is the first time (plaintiffs) have won at the high court level,” Kaido said at a news conference in Tokyo. He said the ruling may signal a turn of the tide.

Wednesday’s ruling was also noteworthy for touching on the risk of volcanic eruption.

“The possibility of heated rock and volcanic ash reaching the reactor cannot be evaluated as small. The location is not suitable” for a nuclear reactor, said presiding Judge Tomoyuki Nonoue in handing down the ruling. The reactor affected is the No. 3 unit at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant, which is located about 130 kilometers from the caldera of the volcanically active Mount Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture.

“The effect that volcanic ash may have on reactors nationwide is underrated,” Kaido said.

Government officials were quick to attempt to play down the risk. “It’s just a court ruling. The government’s position to seek the restart for reactors approved by the (Nuclear Regulation Authority) remains unchanged,” said a senior trade ministry official.

The central government’s target for power generations calls for 20 percent to 22 percent of the nation’s supply to be contributed by nuclear reactors by 2030.

Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa told a news conference that the high court decision would not influence its ongoing and future safety screenings of other reactors.

“We will just fulfill the role of a regulator,” Fuketa said.

But the reality is that utilities have been seeking to convince municipalities that reactors cleared by the watchdog under the tougher guidelines are safe.

“I’m worried that it could create negative momentum,” said an industry official.

For Shikoku Electric, the blocked restart will mean a spike in fuel costs as it will be forced to rely mainly on non-nuclear power generation.

“While the nuclear reactors are suspended, we will need to rely on thermal power, which means we will need to shoulder a ¥3.5 billion loss per month for fuel,” an executive of the utility said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Other utilities are facing similar constraints. Kyushu Electric Power Co. aims to restart two reactors at its Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture, but local residents have filed an injunction seeking to halt the move. A Kyushu Electric executive said he was “surprised at the unexpected ruling” on the Ikata plant.

Meanwhile, the response of residents in Ehime Prefecture was mixed.

One man voiced concern over the ruling’s potential to damage the local economy. The man, who runs a lodging business, said the town accommodated several hundred nuclear power plant workers a year before the Fukushima disaster.

“Ikata is a town of nuclear power,” he said. “I feel that (the ruling) has left locals behind.”

Another resident, however, welcomed the move as a judicial “breakthrough.” ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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Japan court bars restart of nuclear reactor shut after Fukushima — Bloomberg

” A Japanese court overturned a ruling that allowed a nuclear reactor in the country’s south to operate, frustrating the government’s push to bring online dozens of plants shut in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The decision by the Hiroshima High Court, which cited risks from nearby volcanoes, sides with local citizens and reverses a lower court’s ruling that had cleared the way for Shikoku Electric Power Co. to operate its Ikata No. 3 unit, according to an emailed statement Wednesday from the company. The reactor, which restarted last year under stricter safety regulations, has been shut for maintenance and was scheduled to restart on Jan. 20.

Shikoku Electric fell as much as 11 percent in Tokyo, the biggest decline in more than four years, before paring the drop to 8.3 percent.

The injunction issued by the court is a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of having nuclear power account for as much as 22 percent of the nation’s electricity mix by 2030. Public opposition through local courts and municipal governments has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to that plan. Just four of Japan’s 42 operable nuclear reactors are currently online.

The ruling was the first time a high court in Japan has overturned a lower court on the issue of nuclear restarts since the Fukushima disaster. A district court in Hiroshima sided with the utility in March in deciding not to issue a temporary injunction.

Shikoku called Wednesday’s ruling “unacceptable” and said it will try to get it reversed. The injunction is effective through Sept. 30, 2018, according to court documents.

The Hiroshima High Court said risks from volcanoes weren’t being “rationally evaluated” by the Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority. The agency declined to comment because it wasn’t involved in the court case. ”

by Stephen Stapczynski, Bloomberg

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Japan circling back to nuclear power after Fukushima disaster — Forbes

” In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Japan idled all 54 of its nuclear plants. Now, though, five of them are back online while many more may be on the way.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is pro-business and who realizes that without carbon-free nuclear power the country won’t meet its climate objectives, has said that reactors deemed safe by regulators would be restarted. To that end, the Japanese media is reporting that the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) — the state-run utility that operated the Fukushima plant — is expected to get approval to rev up two units that resemble the design of the reactors that succumbed to the natural disaster in March 2011. 

“One consequence of the accident was a gradual shutdown of all nuclear power plants, which has led to a significant rise in fossil fuels use, increased fuel imports and rising carbon dioxide emissions. It has also brought electricity prices to unsustainable levels,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports. “The IEA encourages Japan to increase low-carbon sources of power supply.”

Meanwhile, another Japanese utility, Kansai Electric Power Co., recently started up two different reactors. While 43 other reactors remain offline, about 21 re-start applications are now pending with an estimated of 12 units to come back in service by 2025 and 18 by 2030, Japan Forward reports.  (The Fukushima accident took out four of the 54 nuclear units. Five of those are now back in service, leaving 43 idled.)

Right now, nuclear energy is providing 1.7% of Japan’s electricity, which is down from 30% before the 2011 accident. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry says that if the country is to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accord, then nuclear energy needs to make up between 20-22% of the nation’s portfolio mix — a country with limited natural resources upon which it can rely. Under that agreement, Japan has committed to cut its CO2 emissions by 26% between 2013 and 2030. 

“We believe that energy policy is a core policy of a nation, and must be approached from a medium- to long-term standpoint … especially as Japan has few energy resources,” the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan chairman Makoto Yagi is quoted as saying by the World Nuclear News. 

One factor that has helped Japan is a nuclear watchdog that was created in September 2012: The Nuclear Regulation Authority has eliminated the cozy relationships that allowed utility employees to become nuclear regulators and it has stood up to political pressure to turn a blind eye to operational shortcuts. The agency has shown its willingness to exert its influence and to routinely give updates on the disabled Fukushima nuclear facility. 

As such, the country’s nuclear reactors are all going through rigorous stress tests to ensure that they can survive events similar to what happened in March 2011. The Federation of American Scientists has said that the accident at Fukushima was preventable and its findings are being used to enable the restarts of more nuclear units in Japan.  

The potential restart of Japan’s nuclear fleet is within grasp in large measure because the infrastructure is in place and dismantling it would take decades, all of which makes nuclear power a more plausible long term alternative than importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Besides the economics, nuclear energy — from a climate point of view — is better than natural gas. 

No doubt, Japan has turned more and more to renewable energy and energy efficiency, which have helped the country reduce both its electricity consumption and its fossil fuel usage — something that a a majority of the country’s citizens favor. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry suggests increasing its green energy mix from 9 percent today 22-24% by 2030. Major Japanese companies such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi are investing in wind, solar, and smart-grid technologies.

In combination with nuclear energy, low-carbon sources would amount to roughly 45% of the electricity portfolio mix by 2030 — if Japanese trade and energy officials’ plans come to fruition. Meantime, fossil fuels — coal, LNG and oil — would comprise 55% by then, which have been as much as 85% in recent years.

“The key in moving forward is how to implement the new energy mix that the government has set,” Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan chairman Yagi said. “The power companies will meet the (safety, energy security, economic efficiency and environmental conservation standards) and contribute to the energy policy of Japan by maintaining and establishing generation facilities as appropriate, fully in line with the government’s policies.” 

The Japanese people’s continued skepticism is natural and healthy. But their leadership asserts that the critics’ concerns have been addressed and that the nuclear energy sector has undergone a transformation — one that is safer and more transparent than it has ever been. If Japan is to expand its economy while reducing its CO2 emissions, officials there reason that nuclear energy is critical and thus, they must leverage their existing assets. “

contributions by Ken Silverstein

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Ex-bosses to go on trial over Fukushima disaster — The Star Online

” Tokyo (AFP) – Three former executives at Fukushima’s operator stand trial this week on the only criminal charges laid in the 2011 disaster, as thousands remain unable to return to homes near the shuttered nuclear plant.

The hearing on Friday comes more than a year after ex-Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 77, and former vice presidents Sakae Muto, 66, and Ichiro Takekuro, 71, were formally charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

The indictments are the first — and only — criminal charges stemming from the tsunami-sparked reactor meltdowns at the plant that set off the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

“We hope the trial will shed light on where the responsibility for this accident…lies,” Ruiko Muto, who heads a group that pushed for the trial, told AFP.

“The accident hasn’t been resolved. There is nuclear waste from the cleanup efforts everywhere in Fukushima and there are still many unresolved problems,” she said.

The trial follows a battle over whether or not to indict the Tepco executives.

Prosecutors had twice refused to press charges against the men, citing insufficient evidence and little chance of conviction.

But a judicial review panel composed of ordinary citizens ruled in 2015 — for the second time since the accident — that the trio should be put on trial.

That decision compelled prosecutors to press on with the criminal case under Japanese law.

“We want a verdict as soon as possible,” Muto said.

“Some victims of this tragedy have died without seeing the start of the trial.”

If convicted, the men face up to five years in prison or a penalty of up to one million yen ($9,000).

Internal report

Tepco declined to comment on the trial, saying the men “have already left the company”.

The three are reportedly expected to plead not guilty, and argue it was impossible to have predicted the size of the massive tsunami that slammed into Japan’s northeast coast following a huge undersea earthquake.

However, a 2011 government panel report said Tepco simulated the impact of a tsunami on the plant in 2008 and concluded that a wave of up to 15.7 metres (52 feet) could hit the plant if a magnitude-8.3 quake occurred off the coast of Fukushima.

Executives at the company — which is facing huge clean-up and liability costs — allegedly ignored the internal study.

Waves as high as 14 metres swamped the reactors’ cooling systems in March 2011.

Although the quake-tsunami disaster left some 18,500 people dead or missing, the Fukushima accident itself is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone.

The charges against the executives are linked to the deaths of more than 40 hospitalised patients who were hastily evacuated from the Fukushima area and later died.

Around a dozen others — including Tepco employees and members of Japan’s Self Defense Forces — were injured during the accident.

The disaster forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes near the plant. Many are still living in other parts of Japan, unable or unwilling to go back home, as fears over radiation persist.

A 2015 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said a misguided faith in the complete safety of atomic power was a key factor in the Fukushima accident.

It pointed to weaknesses in disaster preparedness and in plant design, along with unclear responsibilities among regulators.

A parliamentary report compiled a year after the disaster also said Fukushima was a man-made disaster caused by Japan’s culture of “reflexive obedience”.

An angry public pointed to cosy ties among the government, regulators and nuclear operators for the lack of criminal charges.

Campaigners have called for about three dozen company officials to be held accountable for their failure properly to protect the site against a tsunami.

The accident forced the shutdown of dozens of reactors across Japan, with just a handful online more than six years later.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and utility companies are pushing to get reactors back in operation, but anti-nuclear sentiment remains high and there is widespread opposition to the idea. ”

by The Star Online

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Former chief of Fukushima probe criticizes reactor restarts — The Asahi Shimbun

” The leader of the Diet investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster blasted the Abe administration’s policies on restarting reactors, noting that proper evacuation plans are not in place.

“What are you going to do if a tsunami comes?” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said at a June 12 meeting of the Lower House ad hoc committee for research of nuclear power issues. “How can you go (there) to rescue people if cars cannot move forward on roads?”

Kurokawa was referring to the restarts of the No. 4 and No. 3 reactors of the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture in May and June.

The reactors cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety standards that were established after the accident unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said these standards are the strictest in the world.

But Kurokawa said, “I cannot accept such rhetoric.”

Kurokawa, also a professor emeritus of medical science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, was selected as chairman of a third-party advisory body established by the ad hoc committee in May.

He and other experts of the advisory body responded to questions at the meeting of the ad hoc committee on June 12.

Kurokawa also raised questions about the rules for personnel at the NRA, the country’s nuclear watchdog.

In January, Masaya Yasui, an official of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry, assumed the post of secretary-general of the NRA’s secretariat.

Kurokawa said he was concerned that an official of the economy ministry, which has promoted nuclear power generation, is now at the top of the secretariat.

Previously, a “no-return rule” was in place that prohibited employees of the NRA secretariat from returning to the economy ministry.

However, the Abe administration changed the rule to allow them to return to the ministry at bureaus not directly related to nuclear power generation.

Regarding the change, Kurokawa said, “The most important thing is to protect the no-return rule.” ”

by Shinichi Sekine, The Asahi Shimbun

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Six years after Fukushima, much of Japan has lost faith in nuclear power — The Conversation

” Six years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, but Japan is still dealing with its impacts. Decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant poses unprecedented technical challenges. More than 100,000 people were evacuated but only about 13 percent have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to some evacuation zones.

In late 2016 the government estimated total costs from the nuclear accident at about 22 trillion yen, or about US$188 billion – approximately twice as high as its previous estimate. The government is developing a plan under which consumers and citizens will bear some of those costs through higher electric rates, taxes or both.

The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation, and a majority favors phasing out nuclear power. However, Japan’s current energy policy assumes nuclear power will play a role. To move forward, Japan needs to find a new way of making decisions about its energy future.

Uncertainty over nuclear power

When the earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors which produced about one-third of its electricity supply. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japanese utilities shut down their 50 intact reactors one by one. In 2012 then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced that it would try to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, after existing plants reached the end of their 40-year licensed operating lives.

Now, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office at the end of 2012, says that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. Three reactors have started back up under new standards issued by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in 2012 to regulate nuclear safety. One was shut down again due to legal challenges by citizens groups. Another 21 restart applications are under review.

In April 2014 the government released its first post-Fukushima strategic energy plan, which called for keeping some nuclear plants as baseload power sources – stations that run consistently around the clock. The plan did not rule out building new nuclear plants. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for national energy policy, published a long-term plan in 2015 which suggested that nuclear power should produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to strong energy conservation efforts and increased energy efficiency, total electricity demand has been falling since 2011. There has been no power shortage even without nuclear power plants. The price of electricity rose by more than 20 percent in 2012 and 2013, but then stabilized and even declined slightly as consumers reduced fossil fuel use.

Japan’s Basic Energy Law requires the government to release a strategic energy plan every three years, so debate over the new plan is expected to start sometime this year.

Public mistrust

The most serious challenge that policymakers and the nuclear industry face in Japan is a loss of public trust, which remains low six years after the meltdowns. In a 2015 poll by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 47.9 percent of respondents said that nuclear energy should be abolished gradually and 14.8 percent said that it should be abolished immediately. Only 10.1 percent said that the use of nuclear energy should be maintained, and a mere 1.7 percent said that it should be increased.

Another survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in 2016 was even more negative. Fifty-seven percent of the public opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power, with 14 percent advocating an immediate shutdown of all nuclear plants.

Who should pay to clean up Fukushima?

METI’s 22 trillion yen estimate for total damages from the Fukushima meltdowns is equivalent to about one-fifth of Japan’s annual general accounting budget. About 40 percent of this sum will cover decommissioning the crippled nuclear reactors. Compensation expenses account for another 40 percent, and the remainder will pay for decontaminating affected areas for residents.

Under a special financing scheme enacted after the Fukushima disaster, Tepco, the utility responsible for the accident, is expected to pay cleanup costs, aided by favorable government-backed financing. However, with cost estimates rising, the government has proposed to have Tepco bear roughly 70 percent of the cost, with other electricity companies contributing about 20 percent and the government – that is, taxpayers – paying about 10 percent.

This decision has generated criticism both from experts and consumers. In a December 2016 poll by the business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, one-third of respondents (the largest group) said that Tepco should bear all costs and no additional charges should be added to electricity rates. Without greater transparency and accountability, the government will have trouble convincing the public to share in cleanup costs.

Other nuclear burdens: Spent fuel and separated plutonium

Japanese nuclear operators and governments also must find safe and secure ways to manage growing stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel and weapon-usable separated plutonium.

At the end of 2016 Japan had 14,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants, filling about 70 percent of its onsite storage capacity. Government policy calls for reprocessing spent fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. But the fuel storage pool at Rokkasho, Japan’s only commercial reprocessing plant, is nearly full, and a planned interim storage facility at Mutsu has not started up yet.

The best option would be to move spent fuel to dry cask storage, which withstood the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Dry cask storage is widely used in many countries, but Japan currently has it at only a few nuclear sites. In my view, increasing this capacity and finding a candidate site for final disposal of spent fuel are urgent priorities.

Japan also has nearly 48 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.8 tons are stored in Japan and 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 120 crude nuclear weapons.

Many countries have expressed concerns about Japan’s plans to store plutonium and use it in nuclear fuel. Some, such as China, worry that Japan could use the material to quickly produce nuclear weapons.

Now, when Japan has only two reactors operating and its future nuclear capacity is uncertain, there is less rationale than ever to continue separating plutonium. Maintaining this policy could increase security concerns and regional tensions, and might spur a “plutonium race” in the region.

As a close observer of Japanese nuclear policy decisions from both inside and outside of the government, I know that change in this sector does not happen quickly. But in my view, the Abe government should consider fundamental shifts in nuclear energy policy to recover public trust. Staying on the current path may undermine Japan’s economic and political security. The top priority should be to initiate a national debate and a comprehensive assessment of Japan’s nuclear policy. ”

by The Conversation

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