Things are complicated in Japan right now around nuclear power, but let me give you the crash course.
Because local authorities have historically had a say in restarting reactors, over the last 14 months since the Fukushima triple meltdown, all of the 50 functioning reactors in Japan have had to go down for refueling. None of the local governments have said they are willing to have the reactors turned back on, so they are all off currently, representing about 30% of Japan’s generating capacity.
Beyond the local opposition, after Fukushima the nuclear regulator was forced to conduct “stress tests” at all the reactors in the country. This is mostly a paper/computer exercise, in which very little that is real is tested, but it is designed to make people feel good about restarting reactors. The stress tests have been completed, but only for two reactors (at the plant called Oi, but sometimes written Ohi) have had their results reviewed by the nuclear regulator and approved.
Because the old nuclear regulators was hopelessly corrupt and completely controlled by the nuclear industry. And because this collusion had clearly played a part in numerous accident creating and worsening affects around Fukushima, the Japanese government agreed to close the regulator and create a brand new one. They set a firm date to close the old regulator, but they failed to get the new one started by that deadline and now there is no regulator with a mandate operating in Japan and no additional stress tests can be approved, nor will they anytime soon.
So everyone is looking at Oi. It is the only reactor which legally can start. Recent polls show that 70% of the Japanese people dont want this reactor to restart. At the same time the federal government which fears a prolonged nuclear free Japan state is pushing for these reactors to re-open, so are the nuclear utilities which have tremendous financial incentive to get these reactors which they have paid for running again. The local assembly around the Oi reactors just voted to approve the restart but at least some of the regional governors are highly opposed.
The fate of these reactors may well determine the future of nuclear power world wide.
i name my months. i get that this is a bit odd. And it gives me the chance to celebrate extraordinary events, like children of my friends being born or honor heroes passing (had he died earlier April, i might have called April “Bye Ernest” after recently passed Ernest Callenbach who wrote the visionary novel Ecotopia). It also allows me to label history at least to me.
May 2012 will be “Nuclear Free Japan”. This is a “slam dunk” as predictions go, since we have known for a while that 53 of the 54 reactors were closed down and the last would close on May 5th. It has become clear in the last few weeks that the efforts of the central government to rush the restart the Ohi reactors (the only ones to make it thru the new Stress Tests) were meeting too significant resistance to make the May 5th deadline, despite the governments strong desire to now show Japan can function without reactors.
There are a myriad of questions surrounding this situation. Will there be black outs in a Japan short 30% of its generating capacity? [My guess is no] Will the government break with the long standing “consensus” decision making process to force reactors to restart? [Historically local communities can block restarts over the will of the utility or the central government.] Will Japan institute mandatory conservation measures like the did last year and save dozens of reactors worth of power? [This seems likely] Will Japan use mostly fossil fuels to meet the demand left by the shuttered reactors?
Let’s work together to make more countries nuclear free and celebrate May 5th as the beginning of the end of the nuclear age.
Yesterday Socialist Francios Hollande beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy by a single percentage point in the first round of the French presidential elections. This is the first time in over 50 years an incumbent has not commanded the majority in the first round and most political observers thinks this spells the end for Sarkozy who is quite unpopular in his home country. For nuclear power worldwide this is very good thing. Sarkozy is the ultimate nuclear sales person, the first head of state to visit Japan after Fukushima, Sarkozy also appears to have tried to sell reactors to Qaddafi before he fell. Hollande initially agreed with the French Green Party platform of closing 25 reactors by 2025. It remains to be seen if he will stick with this pledge, but it is the other side of the world from Sarkozy who wanted basically indefinite life extension for these reactors.
But Hollande is more important for Europe than just reactors. The Socialist has criticized the German backed failed austerity programs which have been imposed on several southern European countries, most notably Greece. These programs were paradoxically designed to create growth while choking off services and income to the middle and lower classes. It is an idea so stupid, only very rich people could believe it. The election which will likely depose Sarkozy is on May 6th
Despite many headlines to the contrary, Japan will become nuclear free on May 5th. Last ditch efforts by federal government ministers to convince provincial governors to permit restart again failed this week. It will be months before reactors can be brought back online and the debate in Japan is with all 54 reactors down will there be black outs? In behavior which would have likely been scoffed at 2 years ago, many are not believing the governments forecast for power outages this summer without reactors running. Japan produced significant surpluses of power last summer after Fukushima, with many reactors down through increased fossil fuel use, more renewables and a government conservation program.
May is shaping up to be a good month for a nuclear free world.
The Vancouver Sun headline is “Japan rushes to restart reactors to avoid total shutdown”. The article discusses the rush of the Japanese government to make sure that before the last operating reactor in the country is shut down in May, two others will be brought back on line to insure the grid is never without nuclear power. Currently 53 or 54 reactors are down, and because Japanese nuclear policy has depended on local governments signing off on reactors operation, post Fukushima no local governments have been willing to say “yes” to restarting their reactors. The reason given in this Reuters story for the rush to restart is that if the power grid is still operating without any reactors running, the populace will doubt the need for nuclear power.
But the “Rush” headline misses a number of other important stories, which are not making it to the North American media. The Kyodo News reports that PM Noda assured the Japanese Diet on March 30th, that ”We will not push for restarting (the reactors) simply out of fears about power supply,” This “promise” was made in response to the recent polls which that show that the public largely distrusts the government assessment of reactors’ safety and has concerns that Noda will disregard public opposition to restarting idled reactors.
Another poll of 900 respondents indicating distrust of government policies was reported in the Mainichi Daily News shows that 84% do not believe that the government’s stress tests on idled nuclear reactors are adequate barometers of safety. In addition, a majority of respondents, 62%, oppose restarting reactors #3 and #4 at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which is operated by Kansai Electric. These are the same reactors the Vancouver Sun is reporting maybe the first to restart.
Part of the reason that the focus is on restarting these two reactors is that they are the only ones which have passed the post -Fukushima stress tests imposed by the soon to be closed Japanese Nuclear regulators NISA and NSC. These regulators are being replaced because of their massive failures around Fukushima (and other nuclear industry scandals) but the new nuclear regulator NRA has failed to gain enabling legislation in the Japanese Diet, despite this agency having an April 1st starting date.
There is a tiny chance PM Noda will ignore his promise, run over the regional governors and break the long standing consensus policy to restart Oi 3 and 4 before the last reactor in Japan goes down for refueling on May 5th. But what i think is more likely, is that on May 5th Japan will be nuclear free for the first time in decades as teh silver lining to the triple meltdown which has destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of people. Japan will then go into a hot summer with nearly 30% of its electrical capacity down. And the smart money is on there not being black outs due to increased use of renewables, natural gas and govenment conservation programs, proving that the rest of the industrial world can give up its nuclear addition as well.
The US mainstream news is not covering the many developments around these year old triple melted down reactors.
The first thing which caught my eye in the most recent Greenpeace update on the on-going crisis is that workers attempting to get into reactors 2 and 3 had to abandon their efforts because a year after the accident, radiation levels were at 160 milliseverts and hour. At this level even with full protective gear, it is too dangerous for humans inside these reactor buildings. This is the first time they have even tried to get to these reactors since the meltdowns on March 11, 2011. TEPCO says robots will be needed to go where the humans can not.
Already work at reactor 1 is being attempted by undersea robots which are seeking to remove highly radioactive cores from this melted down reactor. The robots need visibility of 7 m to function. Visibility is dramatically reduced from a year ago and is now only 1 m. Robots cant tackle Fukushima problems either.
And while it is proving harder than anticipated to get at the most highly concentrated sources within these reactor buildings, heavy rains have been driving contamination into the soil in the large surrounding area. Radioactive Cesium has been found 5 cm underground because of the recent rains and is believed to be between 10 and 30 cm underground dramatically complicating decontamination efforts.
And to add to the worries of this land a 6.8 magnitude quake landed a 20 cm high tsunami in the northeastern part of Japan last Wednesday.