Who Opens a Reactor Next to a Volcano? Japan’s New Nuclear Gamble

Japan’s post-Fukushima safety guidelines are being ignored and face a possible trial by fire, by law—and maybe by terror.

Photo Illustration by Alex Williams/The Daily Beast

Massive earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, and natural disasters galore—Japan would seem a rather precarious perch for nuclear power plants. Flooding from Tropical Storm Etau, which overwhelmed the water pumps at the infamous ruins of Fukushima, washing more radioactive waste into the ocean, ought to serve as yet another reminder of how fragile Japan’s atomic energy program really is.But is anyone paying attention?

Last week the International Atomic Energy Agency sounded a barely heard alarm. In its final report on the March 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the UN watchdog blasted Tokyo Electric Power Co. for not taking sufficient disaster precautions. “A major factor that contributed to the accident was the widespread assumption in Japan that its nuclear power plants were so safe,” it noted.

The report should have been taken as a warning. It was mostly ignored.

Among its recommendations: “Pre-accident planning for post-accident recovery is necessary to improve decision-making under pressure in the immediate post-accident situation.”

On September 1, Japan’s National Disaster Prevention Day, The Mainichi newspaper ran a story showing that absolutely nothing had been done in the three years since the government ordered new disaster-response guidelines for 17 nuclear research and storage facilities—including the Rokkasho facility in Aomori, which has enough plutonium to make hundreds of nuclear bombs.

Meanwhile, Japan’s first nuclear reactor to be restarted after the shutdown in 2011, at Sendai, went back online on August 11. Things have not been going smoothly.

On August 20, an alarm at Unit No. 1 went off at 2:19 p.m. after seawater apparently leaked into the reactor’s secondary cooling system. Plans to return to full capacity were delayed.

The restart had been delayed again and again—and for good reasons.

After the March 2011 disaster and a review of the accident by parliament-appointed investigators, Japan overhauled its watchdog structure and established the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in September 2012. The agency was given more independence—to lessen conflicts of interest for the many politicians who own shares in electric utilities.

Regulations now require plant operators to fortify tsunami and earthquake defenses; install safeguards to prevent radiation leaks and cool reactors in the event of a meltdown; and ensure that emergency command centers can operate during natural disasters, like the historic flooding from Etau this week that forced more than 175,000 Japanese to flee.

In Sendai, the NRA refused the reactor’s reopening several times, admonishing operator Kyushu Electric Power Co. for failing to meet the new requirements and conducting sloppy inspections. In a letter to the company in June, the agency wrote: “There are not only careless mistakes and incorrect entries in the paperwork, basic fact-checking needs to be done.”

Leaks in the reactor’s condenser appear to have been missed in the initial inspections.

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But human error isn’t Japan’s only matter of serious concern: In addition to Etau’s nearly three feet of rain and an onslaught of other typhoons this year, there’s Mount Sakurajima, a volcano 30 miles from the reactor in southern Kagoshima prefecture that’s showing signs of having a major eruption. On August 15, the national meteorological agency advised people within two miles of the crater to leave the area.

The NRA states that the volcano doesn’t pose a threat to the nuclear power plant.

According to Kyushu Electric Power, there are 14 known active volcanoes within 100 miles of the Sendai reactor. The company says its new equipment is fully prepared to withstand 15 centimeters (or about 6 inches) of volcanic ash. In a country that’s home to 10 percent of the world’s known active volcanoes, not everyone is convinced by those assurances.

Why the rush to put a nuclear plant online in the first place? Under the Democratic Party of Japan, the government had announced plans to phase out nuclear power, but did an about-face when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s coalition took power in 2012, announcing it was committed to restarting the reactors. In its most recently announced “ideal electrical energy strategy,” nuclear is expected to fulfill 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s needs by 2030.

“Japan’s big business association [Keidanren] is also under the strong influence of the nuclear power lobby, and it has long demanded that the government restart the plants as soon as possible,” said Professor Koichi Nakano, an expert on Japanese politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “The ‘nuclear village’ is very well represented among the power elite behind the Abe government, so it has long thought that if this government cannot resume nuclear power generation, no other government can.”

“The problem for them is that the public remains very strongly opposed to nuclear power,” Nakano added. “The Sendai facilities in Kagoshima prefecture are far away from any major city in Japan, so presumably they thought that it is a suitable plant to start with. But given the strength of popular opposition, it won’t be easy to restart so many other plants as if nothing happened.”

But in light of the Fukushima disaster and the frequent seismic activity endemic to its Ring of Fire setting, is Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy a wise choice?

The country’s power elite sure seem to believe so. Yoichi Miyazawa, chief of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and a Tokyo Electric Power (known as TEPCO) shareholder, heralded the Sendai news as a plus for Japan. “The start of power generation using Sendai Nuclear Power Station Unit 1 is an essential step toward the establishment of a well-balanced power source mix, and a more stable electric power supply,” Miyazawa proclaimed. Others disagree.

“The restarts illustrate that the lessons of Fukushima are being ignored and that authorities are still wishing risk away,” says Professor Jeff Kingston, author of Contemporary Japan. “The evacuation plans are a macabre joke. If there is an accident, it won’t be possible to get people out of harm’s way in an orderly and timely fashion. In the event of a tsunami, landslides, and/or volcano eruption, many of the roads could become impassable. There is no Plan B.

“The new, so-called strict guidelines do not meet global standards and focus on hardware, whereas the main lesson of Fukushima is that human error was a major factor contributing to the meltdowns,” Kingston added. “It is clear that these significant risks remain unaddressed in the rush to restart. Yet again corners are being cut and public safety is being risked to help the bottom line.”

In the aftermath of Fukushima, former Prime Minister Kan Naoto, who was in charge during 2011’s triple disaster, acknowledged nuclear’s lethal uncertainties—and then one more. “Nuclear power is a huge risk. Not to mention the possibility of human error. And the Fukushima accident also showed the world how vulnerable nuclear power plants could be to terrorism,” Naoto wrote in his memoirs in 2012. “Terrorists don’t have to bomb them, they just need to get inside and cut the power to potentially unleash great destruction.”

Unarmed guards protect Japan’s nuclear power plants, and background checks are not required for employees. Members of organized crime, the yakuza, staff construction teams and work within the plants. The Japanese government has acknowledged in reports that not only is there a threat from outsiders storming the nuclear plants, but also a high risk from workers already inside—in other words, terrorists might walk through the front doors as employees.

And there is another time bomb ticking here for the Abe administration: Japan’s anti-nuclear activists and the courts.

This summer, a civilian judiciary panel forced prosecutors to indict three former TEPCO executives for criminal negligence, which allegedly resulted in the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Tokyo prosecutors twice refused to bring charges; the first time around, they attempted to bury that news—leaking their decision to the media just when Tokyo was selected to hold the 2020 Olympics.

In the end, the panel forced the indictment, which will be carried out over the next few months.

The ex-TEPCO executives, including former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, will be compelled to give testimony and the courts will have to examine whether the meltdown was an accident or a preventable disaster. The proceedings will once again put the idea of nuclear safety in Japan on trial and the public will get a history lesson that the Abe administration would prefer they don’t have. There is no possibility that it will help people feel better about nuclear energy in Japan.

The recently issued IAEA report may be used as damning evidence in the same trial.

Under the NRA’s new guidelines, only seven of Japan’s 42 operable reactors are expected be approved for reopening. And even those are likely to face local legal challenges; Reuters reports some may be lacking in meeting the stringent safety standards.

Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer who has worked on several legal challenges to facility operatiors and was instrumental in seeing that TEPCO officials faced prosecution for the March 2011 disaster, said he believes that Japan will not see many nuclear power plants go back online.

“It’s clear that the new regulations are too loose, and the nuclear facilities can’t stand up to earthquakes and tsunami,” Kawai said. “The next possible restart is Ikata Nuclear Power Plant in Ehime prefecture, but it’s very unlikely to think of all the plants going online. We intend to fight until every single nuclear power plant here is decommissioned.”

In Tokyo, the Abe administration seems unable to correctly recall events dating just four years back. Judging by the prime minister’s revisionist tendencies, they may already be re-envisioning the Fukushima triple meltdown as merely an annoying blip on Japan’s “perfectly safe” nuclear energy program.

Unfortunately, volcanoes don’t pay much attention to history. They just erupt. And if the Japanese government doesn’t have the sentience to start paying attention to history either, the odds that there will be another nuclear disaster in Japan, either from an act of nature or an act of man, aren’t as low as the government would like people to believe.