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It’s been more than four years since the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, caused by a seismic tsunami, and Japan has finally approved the restart of its nuclear power industry. But now the eruption of a volcano near one of the facilities is raising new questions over safety.
All Japan’s nuclear power plants were shut down because of the explosions and meltdowns on March 11, 2011, at the Fukushima plant. But Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said May 27 that the reactors at the Sendai plant in Satsumasendai had passed their final safety tests. As a result, its owner, Kyushu Electric Power Co., could restart the No. 1 reactor can restart in late July, then the No. 2 reactor in late September.
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The resumption service at Sendai, about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo, has also been approved by local officials. In April, for example, a local court denied an effort by neighbors of the plant to block the restart for fear that it may be susceptible to damage from nearby active volcanoes.
The plaintiffs have appealed that decision, and not too soon. Two days after the NRA approved the Sendai restart, on May 29, nearby Mount Shindake erupted on the small nearby island of Kuchinoerabujima, forcing the evacuation of all its 140 residents. The flare-up caused a column of smoke and ash 30,000 feet tall to gush up into the sky.
No deaths and only one minor injury were reported from the Mount Shindake eruption, but many in Japan – not just neighbors of the volcano – say resuming service at Sendai isn’t worth the risk. After all, the Fukushima accident, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, forced the evacuation of 160,000 nearby residents, most of them permanently.
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Because of the suspension of nuclear service, some electric utilities have decided to abandon older power plants, reducing the number of such facilities to 43, compared with 54 before Fukushima. To compensate for the suspension of nuclear power, the Japanese have been forced to bear the expense of importing fossil fuels to generate electricity, causing household utility bills to rise by 20 percent.
Yet most polls show about twice as many respondents opposed to a resumption of nuclear power service as those who favor it. Many of those surveyed cite Japan’s vulnerability to such seismic events as earthquakes and volcanic activity.
But the Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears determined to go ahead with the restarts – or at least the Sendai restart. This despite the adamant opposition of one of his predecessors and mentors, Junichiro Koizumi, who has become an opponent of nuclear power since the Fukushima accident.
On June 4, Koizumi said the Abe government’s decision to restart nuclear plants was “in breach of [Abe’s] election pledge” during last year’s parliamentary campaign to lower Japan’s reliance on nuclear-generated electricity. Abe’s government plans to cut nuclear power generation to 20 to 22 percent by 2030, compared with 30 percent before the Chernobyl accident.
“Has he already forgotten what he said during the election?” Koizumi asked during a news conference in Kagoshima Prefecture, the region where the Sendai plant is situated.
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Rather than merely reduce reliance on nuclear power plants, Koizumi said, Japan should scrap them altogether. He said this would give Abe an opportunity to play “a historic role” in a “country which should not have nuclear power” because of its vulnerability to natural disasters.
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com