Japan’s first restart of its nuclear power plants since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 has been met with several voices of disapproval and political unrest. Despite local opposition, the Sendai plant has been restarted as part of Japan’s plan to begin using nuclear power again. This restart could be the first of many, a move which jeopardises the safety and security of the nation and can only lead to catastrophe. In evidence of this, Japan has applied for approval to restart twenty five reactors; however, so far only five have been approved.
One issue raised by Japan’s restart is the role that nuclear power will play globally in the 21st century. Other nations have a very different stance on whether nuclear power is a suitable method of energy production for the future. Although many nations are reliant upon nuclear power, not every country considers it a credible option. Since the 1970s, Germany began to phase out nuclear energy and is continually attempting to present an alternative model of renewable energy. However, nuclear electricity is being increasingly recognised as a solution in Africa for electricity. As to where Japan fits in to this picture, it would appear the restart is causing a rise in distaste for the use of nuclear technology.
The first restart of nuclear power in Japan has led to widespread opposition due to fears of another catastrophe occurring. The disaster in Fukushima in 2011 left Japan totally nuclear free for over two years due to a huge loss of public trust in both the government and in nuclear technology. In 2011, a tsunami followed by an earthquake resulted in the explosion of several nuclear reactors in Fukushima, leading to the evacuation of over 100,000 people. Many of these civilians have been unable to return to their homes due to concerns about radiation poisoning and poor healthcare.
Before the incident in Fukushima, there was a clear separation in the minds of Japanese citizens between peaceful use of nuclear power and the danger of nuclear weapons. Arguably, this distinction no longer remains. Many have come to recognise that whether nuclear technology is used to harness power or to build weapons, radiation remains just as deadly.
“Many have come to recognise that whether nuclear technology is used to harness power or to build weapons, radiation remains just as deadly”
The restart is undoubtedly a dangerous political bid considering the rising fear surrounding nuclear power. Previous nuclear disasters stand as evidential proof that Japan’s fears of annihilation are not unfounded. Hiroshima in 1945 was one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century. The sheer magnitude of the fall out, the casualties and the impact upon the country rendered nuclear power too risky. Combining the fear that weapons like this generate with the utter terror produced by the incident at Fukushima, it would seem valid for the public to reject all use of nuclear technology.
Furthermore, it is not just Japan who has seen the potential nuclear power has for disaster. The Goldsboro incident illustrated how nuclear technology is not safe even in the hands of the globe’s richest, most influential nation: America. The accidental drop of an armed nuclear bomb in Goldsboro in 1961 was miraculous. There was no explosion and no casualties. These examples are just a few of many incidents that serve to highlight the dangerous nature of nuclear power and seem to suggest that no good can come from harnessing it, either for energy or for weapons.
More thought-provoking is the analysis of the connections between nuclear reactors designed to produce and commission electricity and nuclear weapons. The directly opposing forces of Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan illustrate the great contention within the debate regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Perhaps it is relevant, and vital, to question how this debate relates to nuclear technology in general. Both involve the same nuclear fuel cycle, and arguably the same risks of radiation and disaster. A document from the Los Alamos National Laboratory dated August 1981 asserts “there is no technical demarcation between military and civilian reactor and there never was one. What has persisted over the decades is just the misconception that such a linkage does not exist”.
“The accidental drop of an armed nuclear bomb in Goldsboro in 1961 was miraculous. There was no explosion and no casualties”
The main difference appears to be the reason for which the technology is being harnessed. However, it is feasible to suggest nuclear reactors may not be being used entirely for commercial use of electricity. A 1951 study by the Atomic Energy Commission asserted that commercial nuclear reactors used solely to generate electricity were not economically viable unless the plutonium produced was sold for profit. The potential for production of weapons here is vast. Furthermore, this is not all hypothetical: President Reagan suggested mining plutonium from spent fuel rods in existing nuclear power plants in 1981. In fact, even the existence of nuclear reactors has been provocation enough for war, as illustrated by Israel’s bombing of the French-built Osirik reactor in Iraq. Therefore, it is clear that public concerns over the use of nuclear reactors are legitimate, and the restart of plants in Japan pose both a national security threat and a risk to civilians.
Given the fear factor associated with nuclear power and the previous disasters which have occurred, the future of nuclear power remains unclear. Japan seems to have decided it is the best option as far as renewable energy sources are concerned, but it is highly contentious as to whether this choice is a safe or sustainable one.
NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka reassures the public “a disaster like that at… Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will not occur”. £64 million has been spent on safety measures at the Sendai plant, and yet an evacuation plan of the surrounding area has not been sufficiently formulated. Considering Japan’s environmental and economic reasons for restarting the plant, the amount this venture has cost seems counterintuitive. Furthermore, the plant is located in a volcanic region, situated only 50km away from one of Japan’s most active volcanos: Sakurajima. And yet, despite this and the huge expenditure upon safety measures, there is no clear plan in the event of an incident, should one occur. Even the Chairman admitted in an interview with a local paper, “there is no such thing as absolute safety”.
“A 1951 study by the Atomic Energy Commission asserted that commercial nuclear reactors used solely to generate electricity were not economically viable unless the plutonium produced was sold for profit”
Considering the great opposition and possible danger of restarting the plant, it must be asked why Japan is so dedicated to this nuclear scheme. Japan has come back online with the aim of becoming more self-sufficient in its energy usage. The government wishes to decrease its imports of oil and natural gas, and its reliance upon thermal power generation due to concerns about the impact of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. The goal appears to be for nuclear power to account for 22% of the nation’s needs by 2030. However, it is highly unlikely this figure will be reached. Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Tenco Intelligence in Washington asserts that “the Sendai restart is unlikely to trigger a cascade of restarts that significantly reduces Japan’s post-2011 dependence on imported fossil fuels”. In fact, Greenpeace has predicted that nuclear power is more likely to account for between 2% and 8% of Japan’s needs by 2030.
In light of these estimations, not only does it seem that the nuclear power plant is a possible recipe for another disaster like that of Fukushima, it also appears to be unsustainable and economically inviable. Perhaps this restart merely serves to highlight the importance of investing in better, safer renewable energy sources.
Image: Jun Takeuchi via Flickr