March 7, 2012 3:25 pm

Japan weighs nuclear future

The coast road that winds along the Tsuruga peninsula, a rugged outcropping on the Sea of Japan that is home to a few hundred families and a cluster of nuclear power plants, is two lanes wide and seems well maintained. Yet its condition doesn’t satisfy Jitaro Yamaguchi.

Mr Yamaguchi, mayor of the nearby town of Mihama, thinks the road is vulnerable to earthquakes and mudslides, which could leave the nuclear plants – two commercial facilities and an experimental fast-breeder reactor – cut off from help in an emergency. To forestall an atomic disaster like the one at Fukushima last year, he wants the government to pay for upgrades.

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“I’ve been asking about this for years, but now I’m strongly demanding it,” Mr Yamaguchi says.

His renewed campaign is certain to get a hearing. Since three reactors melted down at Fukushima Daiichi after Japan’s tsunami 12 months ago, Mr Yamaguchi and other local leaders across Japan have effectively shut down the country’s nuclear industry, by withholding permission for plants in their jurisdictions to restart after regular safety inspections.

Today, only two of the 54 reactors that were in service before the Fukushima accident are producing power. The remaining pair are scheduled to go off-line by early May, leaving Japan without a working atomic plant for the first time in four decades, and depriving it of what had been the source of up to 30 per cent of its electricity.

The prospect has raised fears of supply shortages and, eventually, a nationwide rise in electricity tariffs. “Every day, Y10bn [US$] of our national wealth is disappearing,” the conservative Sankei newspaper warned last month, citing a government estimate that the cost of importing extra natural gas, coal and other thermal fuels would reach Y3tn a year, about one-third of one per cent of GDP, if all the country’s reactors stayed shut.

Authorities in Tokyo are listening. Although the government of Yoshihiko Noda, prime minister, has talked of reducing Japan’s “dependency” on nuclear power in the long run, it is lobbying local leaders to allow their nuclear plants to resume operations for now, pending safety checks. “We hope to regain the public’s trust,” Mr Noda said in a recent interview with the Financial Times and other foreign journalists. “But in the end it will come down to a political decision.”

Mihama and its neighbours are at the forefront of the politicking. Fukui prefecture, where the town is located, hosts 13 commercial reactors, more than any other prefecture in Japan, earning it the nickname genpatsu ginza, or “nuclear high street”. Reactors at one of its facilities, Oi nuclear station, were the first to undergo computer-simulated “stress tests” designed to assess their resistance to unusually large quakes and tsunamis.

A paradox of the nuclear impasse is that Fukui’s politicians are almost uniformly supportive of atomic power. Nor have they faced a groundswell of popular opposition. Last April, for instance, just a month after the Fukushima accident, Kazuharu Kawase, the staunchly pro-nuclear mayor of Tsuruga city, next door to Mihama, was reelected to a fifth term. “None of the other candidates was anti-nuclear either,” he says, adding that the few dissenting voices he hears come from “outside the prefecture”.

Yuki Sekimoto, an organiser for Greenpeace, which has set up a temporary lobbying operation in Fukui city, the prefectural capital, says the reception has been “friendlier than expected” but admits the area is “a very conservative place”.

Simple caution may explain local leaders’ reluctance to sign off on plant restarts until the lessons of Fukushima are fully absorbed. But so might the political advantages of wielding veto power.

Rural areas such as Fukui depend financially on Tokyo, and even nuclear safety can be a bargaining chip. When Issei Nishikawa, Fukui’s governor, endorsed the restart of Tsuruga’s fast-breeder reactor in 2010 – 15 years after a sodium leak forced it to shut down – local leaders say he openly linked his approval to the extension of a Shinkansen high-speed train line to the area. Construction is to begin in 2014. “That was definitely a trade,” says Mr Kawase.

Local leaders say they lack technical expertise to evaluate the safety of plants themselves, and are simply waiting for national authorities to make a definitive assessment on their behalf. Yet one lesson of Fukushima is that, in complex matters such as nuclear safety, absolutes are hard to come by.

Kansai Electric Power (Kepco), operator of most of the atomic facilities in western Japan, including Fukui, has won a partial endorsement from regulators in Tokyo of its stress tests at Oi. Of the two national bodies that supervise the nuclear industry, one has signed off on the results and the other is scheduled to finish its deliberations next month.

However, one expert involved in the deliberations, a former nuclear plant designer at Toshiba, has called the tests “meaningless” academic exercises, while the normally pro-nuclear chairman of the Nuclear Safety Council, Haruki Madarame, said last month that a second, more comprehensive round of evaluations might be needed.

Keeping plants closed would carry costs for the often economically depressed areas that host them. In Mihama, mayor Yamaguchi says atomic facilities provide 1,000 permanent jobs, plus another 1,000 temporary ones during inspection and maintenance periods – a big part of the workforce in a rural town of 11,000 residents.

About 45 per cent of the Mihama municipal budget comes from nuclear-related taxes and subsidies.

At a coffee shop frequented by Kepco employees, Takako Tsuji, the owner, says Mihama “would become a ghost town if the plants stay closed, and a ghost town if there’s an accident”. She would like to see the reactors restarted “as long as we can be sure they’re safe”.

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