As news of the tragic eruption of Mount Ontake spread early this week, with the number of expected casualties rising from 31 to 36 on Monday, the Japanese government announced it intends to push forward with the planned revamp of the country’s nuclear sector. The announcement was perhaps poorly timed for a nation so sensitive to the connection between natural disasters and nuclear power, yet the government likely felt it had to respond to large local protests that occurred the day after the eruption, near the country’s first two reactors scheduled to come back online.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference “This was a steam-driven (eruption) and it has been said it was extremely difficult to predict.” He also said he did not think the eruption would require a reassessment of the restart of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s two Sendai reactors, which the Nuclear Regulatory Authority said on September 10 met its new, stricter safety standards. The head of the NRA’s earthquake and tsunami risk division, Masaru Kobayashi, said the agency did not need to change its decision about the Sendai reactors because they are currently built to withstand an eruption from the nearby Sakurajima volcano (50 km away) on the scale of an eruption that occurred there 10,000 years ago, which was far larger than the one Mount Ontake experienced Saturday.
There has been both public backlash and skepticism within the geological community about the government’s decision to forge ahead with the planned restart. After Ontake’s eruption, Reuters reported that thousands of people near the Sendai plants in Kagoshima took to the streets to protest on Sunday against the restart. Yoshitaka Mukohara, a candidate in the 2012 Kagoshima prefecture governor election who helped organize the protest, said “No one knows when natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis will strike. The fact that they could not predict the Mt. Ontake eruption highlights that… There were plumes above Sakurajima yesterday and today. We have no idea when something might happen.” Indeed, despite the government’s very sensitive and state of the art technology used to detect such occurrences, the Head of the Japan Meteorological Agency, Toshitsugu Fujii, said “What happened on Saturday was beyond our current prediction methods.”
Stephen Church, a partner with Ji Asia that specializes in Asian equity research, told Bloomberg that “The NRA has been criticized for not taking the elevated risk of volcanic eruption into account. The Ontake eruption, if it were to become major, may cause a delay in the nuclear reactor restart program.” While Ontake for now is not expected to experience a large-scale eruption by the Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions, the fact that Saturday’s event did not precipitate action, despite the Meteorological Agency noting increased seismic activity around Ontake less than two weeks before its eruption, will not inspire confidence in communities living with nuclear reactors near active volcanoes and fault lines.