Editorial: After sayonara, second thoughts

Published in The Hindu on September 25, 2012

Now that the dust has settled, the Japanese government’s failure formally to approve a cabinet panel proposal to phase out nuclear energy by 2040 is being seized upon by nuclear industry advocates intent on pressing for the deadline’s eventual abandonment. The government’s Energy and Environment Council — which consists of cabinet ministers — had set a 28-year target for a nuclear-free Japan but the full cabinet baulked at providing unqualified approval for the phase out plan. Instead, the 2040 deadline will only be taken “into consideration” while the government “promote[s] energy and environment policy under constant examination and review,” by engaging in a dialogue with local governments and communities, and seeking the public’s understanding. It is, of course, understandable that Japan — which relied on nuclear power for roughly 30 per cent of its energy requirements till the March 11, 2011 tsunami flooded the Fukushima plant — should exercise abundant caution before committing to abandon this source in about three decades. However, considering the cosy relationship the Japanese government shares with the nuclear industry, the Yoshihiko Noda cabinet’s talk of “examining” and “reviewing” energy policy is a clear signal of how and who will decide the country’s future nuclear landscape.

One has to look at the status of the two Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture that were restarted a couple of months ago to understand why so many ordinary Japanese are wary of relying on nuclear reactors to partially power their country. A possibly active geological fault cuts across the Oi nuclear power plant site. According to a July 18 Asahi Shimbun report, active faults have been found or suspected to cut across the Shika nuclear power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture and a few other reactor plant sites. It was only in December 2010 that the old requirement that reactors should not be constructed above ‘active faults’ was replaced with ‘faults.’ The January 1995 Kobe earthquake that ripped the city, and the numerous faults that crisscross the country, is a reminder of how precariously located the reactors are. In the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 quake, stress levels would have increased along many of these faults. Hence, from a long-term safety point of view, it makes sense for the country to firmly commit itself to an increased percentage of energy production from renewable sources. The more work and money Japan puts into renewable energy research, the easier it will be to properly “take into consideration” the 2040 goal despite the obvious pressure.