Japan still has lessons to learn from Fukushima if it is to convince the public about nuclear energy.
The nuclear disaster that followed the March 2011 tsunami in Japan uncovered serious flaws in the country’s nuclear-safety regulations. Japan learned its lesson: it started putting a premium on safety, and is doing everything it can to assure a wary public that similar mistakes will not be made again. Well, that was the hope. Two recent revelations show that it could still do much more.
The country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) was set up to right the wrongs of the previous regulatory infrastructure. One of its first tasks was to draw up new safety standards for reactor operations. The NRA formed an investigation team of six experts, which held its first meeting on 25 October. The team is expected to submit its report in time for the NRA to put the standards up for public comment in the spring and to make them law in July 2013.
Last week, Japanese media reported that four of those experts have received regular stipends or one-time grants from the nuclear industry. Nuclear engineer Akio Yamamoto of Nagoya University, for example, has received at least ¥50,000 (US$630) over the past three years from each of three companies related to nuclear energy, including Nuclear Engineering, a firm in Osaka that is affiliated with Kansai Electric Power. Although there is no suggestion that Yamamoto has done anything wrong, he also received some ¥27 million in grants from eight nuclear-energy companies during that period, as well as an undisclosed amount from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which builds reactors.
An NRA spokesman defended the team’s composition, arguing that the report will be used only as a reference for the five NRA commissioners who will ultimately decide on the policy. (Those commissioners do not have similar ties with industry.) If the NRA had tried to rule out everyone with any connection to the industry when choosing the experts, the spokesman said, it would have run out of people.
These are fair points, and the fact that the team members had to disclose their contributions at all was a laudable nod to transparency. But playing down the importance of the report by saying it will just be used as a reference is unconvincing.
Much of the uproar over the handling of the Fukushima disaster came from the public perception that conflicts of interests led regulators, who were too tightly tied to the nuclear industry, to favour cost-savings over safety. The NRA, created in large part as an answer to that criticism, has itself been lambasted for moving many staff from the old regulatory structure to the new organization, including its head, Shunichi Tanaka. It seems that Japanese policy-makers, despite the many public demonstrations, still haven’t got to grips with the tendency for conflicts of interest to lead to bad decisions and, even if they don’t, to breed mistrust.
Japan was supposed to emerge with a new respect for reactor safety.
Similarly troubling is the rush with which the government reopened two of the country’s shuttered nuclear reactors in July without fully evaluating the seismology of the ground beneath. Last week, at its second meeting, a subcommittee of the NRA could not confirm whether a fault line running under a seawater-intake channel — used to cool the reactors in an emergency — is active.
At stake is whether the fault is a landslide fault or a more dangerous, deeper tectonic one. The NRA has ordered Kansai Electric, the plant’s operator, to dig trenches to investigate the geology more thoroughly. That should take less than two months, but existing facilities at the plant are in the way, making it much more complicated — and expensive.
Even if the risk from that fault is trivial, as many think, critics point out that the threat of shaking from nearby faults, the potential size of a tsunami and the possibility of structural defects like those found at Fukushima have not been adequately characterized.
Large sectors of the public opposed the reactor restarts with demonstrations of a fervour not seen in Japan in decades. The country had already proved that it could get by, at least in the short term, with no nuclear power. Some scientists had pointed out the uncertainty over the seismic fault, and suggested how to deal with it, before the reactors were restarted. Japan was supposed to emerge from the Fukushima crisis with a new respect for reactor safety and better awareness of the need to convince people of that safety. It hasn’t made a very good start.
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A shaky restart. Nature 491, 301–302 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/491301b