Japan’s push to restart nuclear reactors shut for maintenance by proving their safety through stress tests and plans to let them operate for as long as 60 years have sparked an angry response from the public, which is wary of atomic power in the aftermath of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster.
In a rare protest, a group of citizen observers delayed for hours a hearing at the trade ministry on Wednesday, at which the nuclear watchdog presented to experts its first completed review of stress test results for two reactors from Fukui Prefecture.
Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said in a draft report the tests showed the reactors were capable of withstanding a severe shock similar to the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima plant.
However, the report’s review by a panel of experts is set to continue for a while as the meeting ended up in controversy when observers demanded access to the deliberations and questioned the expert panel’s impartiality.
The government’s decision this week to allow nuclear reactors to operate for up to an additional 20 years — in addition to an initially proposed 40-year limit — also drew fire from local communities hosting nuclear power plants.
Public broadcaster NHK quoted Tatsuya Murakami, the mayor of Tokai village in Ibaraki Prefecture, as saying that allowing for an additional 20 years of service is a compromise that guts the substance of the original plan.
Yukiko Kada, the governor of Shiga Prefecture, also said that allowing the reactors to operate for up to 60 years will make the public uneasy about nuclear safety measures.
The central government ordered stress tests to overcome public opposition to the restarting of reactors shut down for regular checks after meltdowns at the Fukushima plant shattered public confidence in atomic safety.
The world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years has prompted a major shift in Japan’s energy policy, with the country now looking to reduce its reliance on nuclear power. It had aimed to increase its share prior to the disaster.
However, the government is also keen to avert a crippling power crunch in the short term if nuclear reactors are not restarted. Of Japan’s 54 reactors, only five remain in operation with the rest shut for routine checks.
“The basic policy is to reduce reliance on nuclear power in the medium to long term,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters yesterday.
“But when considering the economy, the question is how to cope by suddenly switching off nuclear power when there are no substitute energy sources, and if this is feasible,” Fujimura said.