Nuclear power on shaky ground in Japan : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Nuclear power on shaky ground in Japan By Bayan Rahman and Emiko Terazono Published: September 27 2000 18:58GMT | Last Updated: September 27 2000 19:02GMT

On Saturday the village of Tokaimura will re-live Japan's worst nuclear accident.

Residents and officials from the nuclear industry will take part in a drill to test improved mechanisms for coping with a nuclear accident.

The exercise will be held one year after an accident at a nuclear reprocessing plant in the village, 120km northeast of Tokyo, killed two workers and exposed 439 people to radiation.

Although the village's 34,000 inhabitants were shaken by the event, Tokaimura seems remarkably unaffected.

Farmers complain that they are unable to sell their vegetables because of the perceived risk of contamination, but otherwise the village seems to bear few scars.

However, while Tokaimura seems to have suffered relatively little, the nuclear industry is reeling and the wider repercussions are still being felt across Japan.

The accident and the government's mishandling of it came on the heels of several incidents involving sloppy working practices and a cover-up that have shattered public confidence in the industry.

At one time the promise of better amenities was enough to sway many communities to accept nuclear facilities on their doorstep.

Tokaimura's first nuclear facility was built in 1956 when there were 10,000 residents. "Now there are 34,000 people and we have roads, schools, libraries and community centres. We have benefited from nuclear power," admits Tadashi Teruyama, general manager at the village government office.

But a dramatic shift in opinion has led to public protests across Japan and some projects have been delayed. In one case, residents opposed to the building of a nuclear plant bought the proposed site to prevent the project from going ahead.

"Public opinion has changed greatly," said Michiaki Furukawa, professor at Yokkaichi University and a member of Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre.

"Although an accident on the scale of Chernobyl is unlikely, small accidents could happen again. We need to have better training, we need to look at the age of the plants - some of which are 30 years old - and we need to think about the possibility of earthquakes."

As recently as July this year three nuclear reactors were shut down in five days in Fukushima soon after an earthquake because of an increase in iodine in the reactor's water.

Although no radiation leaked outside the plant, the incident highlighted the danger in a country that suffers many minor earthquakes every year.

The government has taken several steps in the past year to allay the public's fears. It has increased the frequency of inspections of nuclear facilities and made progress towards greater public participation in the decision-making process.

It has passed a law offering more protection to "whistleblowers" (people who alert the authorities or the public to malpractice) and a law enabling the local and central government to take charge of the handling of a nuclear accident.

It has also invited opponents of nuclear plants to take part in the recent drafting of Japan's long-term nuclear policy proposal.

However, the impact of a number of accidents over the past five years has taken a toll on the government's plan to develop nuclear fast-breeder reactors.

An accident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in December 1995, a fire at a waste-reprocessing plant in March 1997 and the Tokaimura accident last year have left the programme in limbo.

The number of nuclear power plants that Japanese power companies plan to build has also been slashed. Two years ago the Ministry of International Trade and Industry predicted that Japan would need 16 to 20 nuclear power plants by 2010. The figure is likely to drop to about 13, government officials say.

But Japan, which has no natural energy resources, relies on its 51 reactors for a third of its electricity and although the government says it plans to investigate alternative sources of energy, it has no plans to curb use of nuclear power dramatically.

As part of its effort to show its concerns on safety, the government plans to hold its own nuclear accident drill next month in which Yoshiro Mori, the prime minister, will be involved.

However, the government has a long way to go before it can restore public trust in the industry. "It has been a great shock to us that the safety of nuclear power has turned out to be a myth," said Mr Teruyama.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 28, 2000

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