Wed, Aug 12, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Fukushima disaster hangs over Japan’s return to nuclear energy

By Justin McCurry  /  The Guardian, SATSUMASENDAI, Japan

An otherwise unremarkable town in southwestern Japan has been propelled to the forefront of the country’s biggest experiment with nuclear power since the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster.

After months of debate about safety, Japan yesterday began producing nuclear energy for the first time in almost two years close to the town of Satsumasendai.

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

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

Just over four years since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant 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 Satsumasendai residents range from anxiety to relief.

Campaigners said the plant operator — Kyushu Electric Power Co — 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 found that only two of 85 medical institutes and 15 of 159 nursing and other care facilities within a 30km 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 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 about 50km away, leaving the plant exposed to volcanic ash fallout and in the most extreme scenario, lava flows.

There are also doubts about the reliability of an aging 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,” Mukohara said. “So why are we so willing to trust a nuclear reactor?”

Greenpeace Germany nuclear specialist Shaun Burnie accused the Japanese 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 Dai-ichi tragedy in 2011 are attempting to kickstart nuclear power again.”

Sendai reactor No. 1 is one of 25 reactors being targeted for possible restarts.

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