The decision this week to indict executives of Japan’s largest energy utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), for their failure to prevent the meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi is a major step forward for the people of Japan.
The fact that this criminal prosecution is taking place at all is a vindication for the thousands of citizens and their dedicated lawyers who are challenging the nation’s largest power company and the establishment system. It is a devastating blow to the obsessively pro-nuclear Abe government, which is truly fearful of the effects the trial will have on nuclear policy and public opinion over the coming years.
For the eight other nuclear power companies in Japan, including their executives, the signal is clear – ignore nuclear safety and there is every prospect that when the next nuclear accident happens at your plant you will end up in court. For an industry that disregarded safety violations and falsified inspection results through its entire existence, the prosecution of TEPCO will be shocking.
But it would be naive to think that profound behavioral change will inevitably follow. In fact, in the five years after the accident, Japan’s nuclear industry has not just failed to learn the lessons of the accident, it is still actively ignoring them. In the three years since nuclear plant operators applied to restart their shutdown nuclear fleet, the evidence shows that when it comes to nuclear safety the bottom line is not safety, but money.
Leaving aside the inherent risks of another severe nuclear accident, the new safety agency in Japan, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is overwhelmed, incapable and inadequate.
Back in 2008, TEPCO produced an internal report that predicted a maximum credible tsunami of 15.7 meters, but continued to insist that it would not reach the nuclear plant at Fukushima, which sits at a height of 10 meters. The cooling pumps for the reactor cores and spent fuel pools were located at just four metres above sea level.
Historical evidence that a major tsunami would impact the eastern Pacific coast of Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi was well known. Modelling suggested that the next major tsunami was overdue and would inundate the coastal plain about 2.5 to 3 km inland. In 2009, Japanese nuclear regulators questioned the vulnerability of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors to a large-scale tsunami and asked TEPCO to “consider” concrete steps against tsunami waves at the plant. TEPCO responded: “Do you think you can stop the reactors?”
This relaxed attitude is not just limited to TEPCO. In recent weeks, Kyushu Electric informed the NRA that the emergency seismic proof isolation building that they committed to build by March of this year would not be built after all, despite being a condition to secure approval to restart the two Sendai reactors. The NRA expressed its disappointment, but the Sendai reactors restarted in August and continue to operate.
At the Takahama nuclear plant, owned by Kansai Electric the NRA admitted in the last month that they do not know if the reactors comply with fire safety regulations requiring essential electric safety cabling to be adequately separated and protected.
The loss of safety cable function sounds mundane, but the risks are considered more severe than all other failures at a nuclear plant combined. Without electricity, vital safety systems do not work and control of the reactor is lost. A severe accident at Takahama would threaten millions of residents of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and the wider Kansai region.
Nonetheless, the NRA granted Kansai Electric an exemption to avoid delaying restart. Takahama reactor-3 resumed operation in late January, while Reactor 4 at Takahama resumed operations for less than three days before shutting down again on 29 February due to an electrical failure.
These examples are the tip of the atomic iceberg that threatens the next nuclear disaster in Japan. With three reactors now operating, the industry remains in crisis. Having sat on idle assets for the last few years, the utilities are desperate to resume operations, while the nuclear obsessed Abe government is happy to support them. It’s time to put people first.
Nuclear power is a financial disaster which will only get worse as the electricity market opens to new suppliers and renewable energies out-price them. And the vast majority in Japan realize this: 60 percent of Japanese are opposed to the phase-in of nuclear, and there are more than 300 lawyers fighting reactor by reactor to prevent restart on behalf of citizens. At this rate, the Abe government and the nuclear industry will never see the target of 35 reactors restarted by 2030.
The criminal prosecution of TEPCO, long in coming, is another step in the process to end nuclear power in Japan and for a transformation of its energy system to renewables.
Shaun Burnie is a nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, currently working as part of a Greenpeace radiation survey team in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Fukushima