Nuclear foe: Ryuichi Yoneyama (center), a medical doctor who advocates anti-nuclear policies, raises his hands after he was assured of winning the gubernatorial election in Niigata Prefecture on Oct. 16.
Voters have elected anti-nuclear governors in Kagoshima and Niigata prefectures in recent months. These elections can be considered referenda on nuclear power because that issue was the main focus of debate in both campaigns. The results have put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — and his plans to rev up the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors — behind the eight ball of public opinion and prefectural politics.
There will be a slew of gubernatorial elections in 2017 that will focus on nuclear energy, an issue where the Liberal Democratic Party is vulnerable because it was in charge when all of Japan’s reactors were built and was arguably complicit in the culture of complacency and regulatory capture that compromised public safety. The LDP owns the Fukushima disaster and thus the shambolic cleanup further discredits Abe’s party.
The media portrayed the victory of Ryuichi Yoneyama in Niigata over the “nuclear village” candidate, former construction ministry bureaucrat Tamio Mori as a major upset. Abe endorsed Mori, but his pro-nuclear advocacy proved his undoing. Mori toned down that message toward the end of his campaign but it was too late to fend off Yoneyama, who rode the wave of nuclear anxieties into office. He replaces another anti-nuclear governor who stymied Tepco’s plans to restart reactors in the prefecture in the aftermath of the Fukushima debacle and revelations of slack safety practices.
In 2007, the massive 8-gigawatt Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which consists of seven reactors, shut down after a strong earthquake struck Niigata. Local scientists had sued Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government for selecting a dangerous site for the world’s largest atomic power plant, arguing that it is built on an active fault line, but a judge dismissed their claims as baseless in 2005.
Mother Nature ruled otherwise. The reactors all shut down, but the land subsided, breaking water pipes so that fire-fighting was delayed. More importantly, the manager of the plant said during a subsequent NHK interview that first responders had been very lucky, explaining that he and his staff would have been helpless if anything had gone wrong, as they were all locked out of the command center where the reactor controls are located because the door to the room had jammed shut due to land subsidence. Improvising, they set up whiteboards in the parking lot and relied on their mobile phones, but they had absolutely no means to manage any reactor emergency if there had been one. This story is not forgotten in Niigata.
There is heightened concern among most Japanese about nuclear safety following the three meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011. Three major investigations into the nuclear disaster have pinpointed human error as the main cause of the meltdowns, highlighting cozy and collusive relations between Tepco and nuclear watchdogs that compromised safety because regulations were not strictly enforced and regulators averted their eyes from serious breaches. They are also mindful that back in 2002 a whistleblower alerted authorities to Tepco’s systematic falsification of repair and maintenance records for all 17 of its reactors. A coverup failed and the media subsequently revealed that all of the utilities operating nuclear reactors had engaged in similarly shoddy practices, cutting corners to save money.
Have the lessons of Fukushima been learned and led to appropriate countermeasures to upgrade safety? Apparently voters are not convinced by the PR machine that touts stricter safety regulations and hardware upgrades, and they have been finding support among judges who have issued injunctions blocking reactor restarts that have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority. The NRA is the reincarnation of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which lost all credibility following post-Fukushima meltdown revelations of slipshod oversight. Alas, the Homer Simpsons of NISA now constitute the majority of NRA employees, undermining the credibility of the new nuclear watchdog agency.
The government and utilities are supposed to consult local opinion, but in practice they limit this to communities hosting reactors because these people have a vested interest in rebooting nuclear plants. Nuclear power plants don’t generate revenue and subsidies if idle, while restarting a reactor opens the spigots of cash that these remote communities are dependent on. Now that the evacuation zones have been expanded to 30 kilometers, extending into adjoining towns that shoulder the same risks without the benefits, it would make sense to give these communities a say in restarts. However, the central government opposes that because it fears that locals who have not been co-opted wouldn’t be in favor of restarts, especially since evacuation drills have been chaotic, revealing that the government is advocating restarts before it is properly prepared to deal with a crisis.
Only two of Japan’s 42 reactors are operating and one of them is in Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, where another anti-nuclear governor won election. This reactor is not far from where the devastating Kumamoto earthquake struck in April, in a region that also features a number of active volcanoes spewing ash that could block roads and impede an emergency evacuation.
What are the chances of a simultaneous earthquake, typhoon, tsunami and volcanic eruption affecting a nuclear reactor? Probably not that high, but there was such a deadly combination of earthquakes, eruptions, landslide and tsunami with a 100-meter wave recorded in Kyushu in 1791 that killed 15,000 people. But no worries — that was on a different part of the island.
Exit polls from Niigata’s gubernatorial elections found that 73 percent of voters oppose restarting the Niigata plant and only 27 percent are in favor. A mid-October Asahi poll found that 57 percent of Japanese nationwide were opposed to nuclear restarts and only 29 percent were in favor. More importantly, the same poll found that 73 percent of Japanese favor a zero nuclear energy policy in the near future and just 22 percent are opposed to the idea.
What must worry Abe even more is that within the LDP, 45 percent of members oppose nuclear energy while just 42 percent support his nuclear advocacy. Thus former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may be right with his recent assertion that Abe has a nuclear Achilles’ heel that may lead to his downfall.