Japan's TEPCO nuclear plant restarts fear of new Fukushima

Japan's largest nuclear power plant has been declared safe by regulators, prompting renewed concerns from critics that operator TEPCO has not learned the lessons of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Julian Ryall reports.

On Wednesday, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) confirmed that two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwan power plant, the largest nuclear power facility in the world, passed safety screenings and could resume operation.   

Nature and Environment | 23.07.2017

The decision has been broadly criticized across the country, with anti-nuclear campaigners, media and people living close to atomic energy facilities saying the operator of the plant has not learned the lessons from the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

Japan's atomic energy watchdog confirmed that the number 6 and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, located on the coast of Niigata Prefecture in northern Japan, had met new safety standards introduced after the Fukushima crisis.

A handful of other nuclear energy operators in Japan have previously been granted permission to resume operations of reactors, which were all shut down in the aftermath of the second-worst nuclear accident in history. However, this is the first time that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has received approval to push ahead with producing energy output.

A new disaster waiting to happen?

After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the ensuring series of tsunami struck TEPCO's Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011, the company was condemned for safety failures.

In the quake's aftermath, three of the six reactors at Fukushima suffered core meltdowns and radioactive material was released into the environment. The Japanese government estimates it will take at least three decades and cost more than 20 trillion yen (€150.87 billion, $176 billion) to make the plant safe and decontaminate the surrounding area.

That figure is double the initial estimate that was provided by TEPCO in 2013. Meanwhile, thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes across a large swathe of rural northeast Japan.

And while there are still more hurdles for TEPCO to overcome before Kashiwazaki-Kariwa goes back online, environmental groups are concerned.

Read more: The illusion of normality at Fukushima

"The reactor in Niigata is very similar in design to the Fukushima ones and TEPCO has still not found out the precise reasons for why the accident there happened," Caitlin Stronell, a spokesperson for the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, told DW.

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"The governor of Niigata Prefecture has stated that until the causes have been confirmed, then it is not possible to guarantee the safety of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant," said Stronell. "The full results of the investigation are not expected for another three years, and even then, questions are certain to be raised about whether the findings are satisfactory.

Money before safety?

"It is clear that TEPCO is having a difficult financial time and that it is keen to start up its reactors in order to survive as a company, but we do not think that is a good enough reason to reopen the plant," said Stronell. "Safety has to be the priority," she said, adding that Kashiwazaki-Kariwa has a history of its own problems.

The plant was just 19 kilometers (11 miles) from the epicenter of a magnitude 6.6 earthquake in July 2007, a tremor that shook the facility beyond its design basis and required that the plant to be shut down for 21 months for seismic upgrades.

Read more: Japan's nuclear mishap underlines industry malaise

"It was known that this area was prone to earthquakes and there are some reports that the operator was lucky that the 2007 tremor did not cause a disaster on the scale of Fukushima," Stronell said. "Many people say it was just a matter of good luck that it didn't."

The plant was again shut down after the Fukushima accident, although it did not suffer any damage in that earthquake.

"The other issue that local people have with TEPCO is one of trust," Stronell added. "Can they take the company at its word? Ever since 2011, there has been a large degree of distrust."

The Japanese media is making the same point, with an editorial in Thursday's edition of the Asahi Shimbun headlined, "Can TEPCO still be trusted after past disasters and attitudes?"

Tohoku earthquake and tsunami

It was the worst disaster in post-war Japanese history. Four years ago, a massive 9.3-magnitude undersea earthquake erupted off the coast of the Tohoku region, triggering a tsunami that devastated the northeastern coast of Japan, taking the lives of at least 15,880 people and leaving another 2,694 missing. Some 6,135 people were injured.

Fukushima meltdown

But the natural disaster turned into a manmade one when a 13-meter (43-foot) tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant's cooling systems failed, leading to overheating in three reactor cores, and radiation leaks. About 20,000 people were evacuated, while some 80,000 additional cancer cases could surface due to radiation exposure. Cleanup could take 30 years.

Three Mile Island

The Fukushima disaster was not without precedent. In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, underwent a partial nuclear meltdown. Feedwater pumps stopped sending water to the steam generator that cooled the reactor core, and a malfunctioning valve allowed cooling water to pour out. Some 140,000 children and pregnant women were evacuated from the area.

The legacy of Chernobyl

Until Fukushima, the Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident in history. In 1986, a sudden power surge at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine destroyed the reactor, releasing a radioactive cloud that spread over Russia and Europe. A 30-kilometer area was sealed off and some 335,000 people were evacuated, while at least 30 people died as a result.

New US nuclear plant

Finishing touches are being completed at the Watts Bar Unit 2 plant in Tennessee, after a long delay due to low regional power demand. Its sister plant, Watts Bar Unit 1, was the latest nuclear plant to go online in the United States, in 1996. Further new nuclear plants are planned for the US - which sees atomic energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Germany's atomic buffer

Even in Germany, with its strong anti-nuclear movement, Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition originally sought to delay the country's nuclear phase-out date from 2022 to 2034. The 2022 goal had been set by Merkel's center-left predecessor, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Merkel's coalition justified the delay by claiming that it was a buffer in the transition toward renewables.

Merkel backpedals on nuclear

But after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, Berlin reacted quickly by permanently shutting down eight nuclear plants. Merkel's coalition then decided to completely phase out atomic power by 2022, readopting the date originally set by Schröder. Germany has set a goal of 80 percent renewables by 2050 - the country recently reached the 27 percent mark in renewable energy production.

Italians uphold nuclear ban

Like Germany, Italy also has a long history of anti-nuclear activism. After the Chernobyl disaster, Italians voted in 1987 to ban nuclear power. But in 2011, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sought to reintroduce atomic energy. The question was put to Italians in a referendum, who again voted down atomic energy.

The UK's nuclear future

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative-Liberal coalition is also seeking to promote nuclear to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the approved Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset (pictured above) - which would be the newest since 1996 - faces a legal challenge over use of state aid for construction. A recent estimate put the total cost of Hinkley C at 24.5 billion pounds (34.4 billion euros).

India expands atomic reach

New Dehli is planning to quadruple its nuclear capacity by 2020, relying on atomic energy to supply 25 percent of its electricity. But the plan has sparked fierce opposition. Demonstrators have repeatedly interrupted construction work at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, which was built with Russian support. Russia has also offered to build a dozen more nuclear power reactors in India.

China looks beyond coal

Beijing is seeking a more modest rise in its nuclear capacity. The People's Republic plans to generate 6 percent of its electricity through atomic power by 2020, compared to just 2 percent currently. The Changjiang Nuclear Power Plant, pictured above, is currently under construction in Hainan province. Nuclear power could reduce China's dependence on heavily polluting coal plants.

France banks on nuclear

France depends on atomic energy for 75 percent of its electricity. Although President Francois Hollande had pledged to reduced the country's dependency on nuclear, only one power station - an aging plant on the German border (pictured above, with protest banner) - has been earmarked for closure. In the meantime, France's 20 nuclear reactors continue to hum away - at Europe's core.

Lessons not learned

The editorial pointed out that after the 2007 earthquake, management of the utility vowed to learn the lessons and ensure that nothing similar ever happened again. A mere four years later, the Fukushima disaster was far worse, it added.

Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace Germany, says the main concern remains seismic risk, even after the industry regulator declared that the plant is safe.

"The Japanese regulator relies upon a seismic modeling assessment that underestimates earthquake risks," Burnie told DW.

"The TEPCO reactors were not designed or constructed to withstand the most severe seismic energy that is very possible at the Niigata site," he said. "Yet TEPCO and the NRA seek to downplay and ignore those risks.

"This was a political decision driven by a desperate attempt to secure income for TEPCO but - even if they eventually operate, and that is still years away - it will only cover a fraction of the tens of trillions of yen it will need to pay for the Fukushima reactor meltdowns."

"If TEPCO has any future it will be in renewables - not nuclear power," said Burnie.