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Japan debates the viability of nuclear power plants

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • March 16, 2011

    The 9-point magnitude earthquake that struck the northeastern Sendai region of Japan on 11 March 2011 and the subsequent tsunami that it triggered have caused incalculable devastation. While it is still too early to calculate the economic cost that Japan will have to bear in reconstruction, it is bound to be enormous. Rough estimates mention a figure of over $100 billion for rebuilding the ravaged areas. Prime Minister Kan Naoto has admitted that this is the single biggest disaster that Japan has faced since World War II.

    Japan, which has a robust mechanism to meet natural disasters including evacuation and rehabilitation of affected people, is, however, finding it difficult to contain the meltdown of its nuclear reactors at Fukushima. Japanese people who had maintained orderly calm in the initial days are getting panicked as radiation leakage from these nuclear plants has reached a hazardous level. The situation has forced the Japanese government to declare a “nuclear emergency situation” for the first time ever in the country’s history. The Japanese government is handling the situation efficiently and has deployed more than 100,000 troops of its Self Defense Force for rescue operations in affected areas. Teams from the US, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand have joined the rescue operations. These developments have led to a debate about the effectiveness of nuclear power plants in a quake prone country.

    An earthquake of 6.6 magnitude that had hit near Niigata in southwest Japan in July 2007 had caused a minor tsunami and affected roads and transport systems. It also led the authorities to shut down the high-speed Shinkansen (Bullet train service) for several hours. At that time too, nuclear power reactors were shut down automatically though the quake caused a small fire at an electrical transformer of the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant. It became possible to quickly control the situation because the inundation of the nuclear generator was successfully prevented.

    But this time around, the situation was different. The Japanese media have reported that underlying the meltdown of reactors which forced the government to declare a “nuclear emergency situation” was the failure of diesel generators to supply power to an Emergency Core Cooling System of the nuclear reactor. The generators stopped functioning after they were flooded by the tsunami. Commenting on the situation, a Japan Times editorial blamed the government for not implementing necessary safeguards and asked “why were the back-up diesel generators at 1F placed in a location where they would be vulnerable in the event of a tsunami, and why wasn’t a policy of double-redundancy enforced in which a reliable back-up power-generation system existed for the back-up diesel generators?” The daily has urged the government to review its nuclear power generation policy and “ensure multiple redundancies in safety systems” in all the 54 power reactors in Japan.1 Another editorial in the Yomiuri Daily opined: “Nuclear power generation has become the fundamental source of energy in this country. However, the shock wave of the explosion may shake that position to its foundation.” It went on to suggest that the Japanese government “must reinforce its system for preventing accidents at nuclear power plants. If the government makes mistakes in handling such accidents, the utilization of nuclear power stations at home and abroad will be jeopardized.”2

    Despite the accidents at the Three Mile Island in the US and at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, Japan gave priority in its energy policy to nuclear power generation over other sources. This was mainly because of Japan’s scarce energy resources in the form of petroleum, coal and natural gas. The meltdown at Fukushima’s nuclear power plant will, however, increase pressure on Japan to diversify its energy sources and increase the use of natural energy resources. Suggesting such a course, a leading columnist opined in the Asahi Shimbun that “we must go back to square one in our discussions and delve into such fundamental questions as how far we should count on nuclear energy in this quake-prone country and whether safety can ever be secured for nuclear power plants.”3

    The accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has resulted in a power shortage in prefectures adjacent to Fukushima, including various parts of the Tokyo metropolitan area. To prevent a complete blackout, Tokyo Electric Power Company, which manages the Fukushima nuclear plant, has introduced an outage system, which has affected water supply, medical facilities, transportation system, traffic lights and ATMs. The situation following the devastating earthquake and the tsunami is thus testing the resilience of Japanese society as a whole. Since Japan does not have a viable domestic alternative to nuclear power generation, it is likely that the Japanese government will continue to adhere to the policy of greater reliance on nuclear power. Nevertheless, there will be pressure on the government to put additional safety measures in its nuclear power plants. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown offers lessons to countries that seek nuclear energy including India in terms of enforcing a system to withstand quakes and tsunami.

    • 1. “Nuclear power in disarry,” (Editorial), The Japan Times, March 15, 2011.
    • 2. “Make no mistake in handling N-accident,” (Editorial), The Yomiuri Daily, March 14, 2011.
    • 3. Keiji Takeuchi “Can quake-prone Japan really coexist with nuclear power plants?,” Asahi Shimbun, March 13, 2011.