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Setback to Abe’s New Energy Policy as Court Halts Restarts of Nuclear Reactors



In a landmark ruling regarding nuclear plants, the Fukui District Court ordered on 21 May 2014 Kansai Electric Power Company (Kepco) that they cannot restart two of their reactors because of safety of the plants and surrounding areas were at stake. The two reactors at Kansai’s Oi’s nuclear power plant are still under safety examination by Japan’s top nuclear watchdog. It was the first time since the Fukushima nuclear crisis erupted in March 2011 that a Japanese court prevented a power supplier from bringing a reactor back online. Since the present government headed by pro-nuclear Shinzo Abe wants to restore nuclear as a source of energy in the country’s power mix, the court ruling is a setback to his plan. Abe is a pragmatist and knows well that a resource- deficient country such as Japan cannot afford to do away with the nuclear as a source of power. What he wants is to ensure that the safety standards be tightened so that the Fukushima-type experience is averted in the future.

In the case of the Oi nuclear plant, around 189 plaintiffs who are living within 250 kilometers of the nuclear plant brought the case to the Fukui District Court. This group along with 20 other prefectures contended that the No.3 and 4 reactors at the Oi plant resumed commercial operations in August 2012 under provisional safety standards. The court observed that “an evacuation advisory was considered for those who live within 250 km of the Fukushima Daiichi complex at the time of the accident.” In the ruling, Presiding Judge Hideaki Higuchi admitted the importance of nuclear plants for society, but pointed out that they are “merely a tool for generating electricity and thus inferior to people’s fundamental rights (to life).” The judge observed that “it would be only natural to suspend nuclear plants if they pose specific risks of danger”. Judge Higuchi observed in the ruling that there is a huge possibility that the plant cannot withstand future earthquakes, and so it is “natural to ban operations”.

The court said there was no way of knowing when an earthquake far more powerful than one the electric utility has braced for will strike. The court stated that such an event could have grave consequences for residents living within a 250-kilometer radius of the plant in Oi, Fukui Prefecture. It cited the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant forced the evacuation of 150,000 local residents, which was the catalyst for the deaths of 60 people, including hospitalized patients. Judge Higuchi observed the catastrophic accident three years ago revealed “the true nature of risks inherent in nuclear power technology and the scale of damage” that a serious nuclear accident can cause.

After the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) was established as a more independent nuclear industry watchdog. This had led to more stringent nuclear safety standards than before. The two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant were among the 17 applying for a restart with the NRA under the new guidelines. Though the NRA has not made any decision on the restarts, it has asked Kansai to fortify their plants in order to ensure safety during earthquakes. Lawsuits like this are not uncommon in Japan. People living in the surrounding areas of nuclear plants approach the court to prevent nuclear plants from operating because of safety hazards. The last time that a court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs was in 2006 when the Ishikawa District Court ordered that the Shika Nuclear Plant’s No.2 unit should be shut down because there was a nearby fault line that could have possibly posed a risk. A higher court overturned the decision later, however. [1]

In August 2012 the two reactors in Oi resumed operations after all of Japan’s reactors were shut down amid strong public concern over nuclear safety in the wake of the Fukushima disaster caused by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The two reactors at the four-unit Oi plant on the Sea of Japan coast are now offline after being suspended again in September 2013 for regular checkups. The reactors are under examination by the NRA to determine whether they can resume operations under Japan’s new safety standards introduced in July 2013. [2]

After the Fukushima crisis, new Japanese law prevents none of Japan’s 48 reactors to resume operating unless they meet the new safety regulations. This was for the first time that utilities are obliged to put in place specific countermeasures against severe accidents like reactor core meltdowns and huge tsunami.

The court decision came at a time when the government planned to restart idled nuclear reactors across the country once the NRA confirms their safety and therefore a setback to Abe’s plan. Prime Minister Abe has reiterated that his government will push for the restart of nuclear reactors that have satisfied what it calls the world’s toughest regulations.

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said despite the court’s ruling, the government’s stance on backing the restart remains unchanged. The government plans to restart the nuclear plants that will meet the NRA’s safety requirements in order to lessen the costs of importing fossil fuel.[3] Japan has been without nuclear power since September 2013 when the only two online reactors at Oi had to shut down as well for maintenance checks. Anti-nuclear sentiment has been steadily building since 2011 following the Fukushima incident. Though the common Japanese peoples are afraid of the dangers stemming from nuclear energy, they do not understand that the country does not have its own source of energy and is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. They only worry about the risk posed by nuclear energy.

There are 14 nuclear reactors in Fukui, the most among Japan’s 47 prefectures. Kansai Electric Power, based in Osaka, has decided to appeal the ruling. In early May 2014, the Osaka High Court turned down a similar lawsuit filed by a group of residents in the Kinki region of western Japan seeking suspension of the planned resumption of the two Oi reactors, upholding the lower court decision. The High Court’s view was that it was inappropriate for a court to prevent the resumption before the NRR decides whether to give a nod to the reactors.

While the government stance on the resumption of nuclear energy remains unchanged, the leading newspaper of Japan, The Asahi Shimbun, observed in an editorial that the government should accept the court ruling of 21 May as it was a “sober judgment that fully reflects the lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster”. It further said that both Kansai Electric Power Company, the operator of the plant, and the government cannot afford to ignore the ruling.[4] While giving high marks to the ruling, the editorial observed that the court has taken its role as a vital guardian of the law very seriously after the nuclear disaster. The court rejected the argument of the operating company that the reactors need to be brought back online to ensure stable supply of electricity and to cut costs and saw no rationale that “suspending nuclear power generation is detrimental to the national interest because it will lead to increasing Japan’s trade deficit and drain of national wealth”. Though the Abe administration has moved to reactivate idled reactors if they pass the NRA’s safety checks, the ruling comes as a strong warning against a head-long rush to bring reactors back online based only on limited scientific knowledge. The people of Japan expect the operators of nuclear plants, the government and the NRA to offer clear and straightforward answers to the questions raised by the court ruling.

Another Japan daily, The Yomiuri Shimbun, took a different position and observed that the court ruling was based on irrational thinking. It criticized the ruling as “obsessed with the elimination of every scintilla of risk”. The editorial alleged that Fukui court ignored the new safety standards that came into force for nuclear reactors in July 2013, and therefore exhibited scant scientific knowledge. It questioned the line of reasoning of the court and said no safety steps could possibly be valid based on such unrealistic thinking. [5]

When Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ was Prime Minister, his government had taken a political decision to restart operations of the Nos. 3 and 4 Oi reactors in July 2012, becoming the first to do so after the Fukushima nuclear accident eventually led to the shutdown of every reactor in Japan. The two reactors in question operated smoothly and were switched off in September 2013 for regular inspections.

There is a view in Japan that says that since the Kansai Electric had already approached the NRA to examine whether the two reactors conformed to the new safety standards and that the regulator so far has determined no active faults run under the premises of the nuclear plant, with the screening approaching the final phase, the court’s decision against restart was unwarranted. Those who support this view cite the 1992 ruling on the safety of the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture in which the Supreme Court had observed that such matters require “extreme accurate and the newest scientific, technical and comprehensive decisions, and are entrusted to the rational judgment of the government”. The supporters of the restart hope that the higher court will uphold that its position in screening reactors is limited and the matter is best left to the government to decide.

The government remains unperturbed and reaffirmed its pro-nuclear policy even after the court ruled against restart due to safety concerns. The economy, trade and industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi remarked that “the safety of nuclear power plants will be appropriately judged under the new regulatory standards introduced in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis. Motegi informed the media that the government will stick to its energy policy decided in April 2014, which pledged to push for the resumption of reactors that have cleared the “world’s toughest regulatory standards”. [6]

Will the court ruling put the government under pressure as it seems determined to reactivate idled atomic power stations one after another? Given the government’s resolve to give nuclear a vital place in its new energy policy, if it ignores the ruling and give the green light to restarting the reactors, it would certainly trigger public protests. The Mainichi newspaper advised in its editorial that the Abe government “should not allow utilities to resume operations at idled nuclear power stations one after another as if it had forgotten all about the Fukushima nuclear disaster”.[7]

How is Japan going to cope with the summer heat when electricity consumption is heavy, with none of the nuclear reactors in operations? The government called for moderate power-saving efforts without setting numerical targets. If households and businesses cooperate in power-saving efforts the hardship can be minimized somewhat. If power supply capacity falls due to trouble at a power plant, the risk of a blackout can leave negative impacts, leading to heat strokes and other health hazards.

“The economic effects of the suspended operation of all nuclear reactors are huge. The additional fuel costs of thermal power plants now operating in place of nuclear power plants have swelled to about ¥4 trillion a year. As a result, the utility rates for the average household have risen by about 40 percent for TEPCO and 30 percent for Kansai Electric compared to prices before the nuclear crisis in Fukushima.” [8] If the NRA does not give clearance to the nuclear operators waiting safety checks and restart is further delayed, it will result in additional rate hikes. The impact on households and businesses will be adverse on two fronts – rate hikes and less power. It is therefore desirable in the interest of Japan’s economic health and people’s welfare that the NRA must expedite its task of evaluating the safety standards and make the operators raise the bar where the safety standards are to be improved. Both the NRA and the government need to coordinate their roles to address to the nation’s energy challenge. An early restart of nuclear reactors looks reasonable. ———————————- (The writeer Dr. Rajaram Panda, is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com)

[1] “Japanese Court rules against restart of Oi nuclear plant”, 21 May 2014, Mainichi Japan, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20140521p2g00m0dm087000c.html [2] Japan court orders power supplier not to run Oi nuke plant, 21 May 2014, Mainichi Japan, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20140521p2g00m0dm087000c.html [3] “Japanese court Japanese court rules against restart of Oi nuclear plant”, 22 May 2014, http://japandailypress.com/japanese-court-rules-against-restart-of-oi-nuclear-plant-2248640/ [4] “Court ruling on Oi nuclear plant should be accepted”, The Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 22 May 2014, http://ajw.asahi.com/article/views/editorial/AJ201405220026 [5] “Court ruling on Oi nuclear plant restart based on irrational thinking”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, editorial, 22 May 2014, http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001299157 [6] “Gov’t reaffirms pro-nuclear policy after court rules against restart”, Mainichi Japan, 22 May 2014, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20140522p2g00m0dm035000c.html [7] “Oi nuclear power plant ban sounds alarm bells for other operators”, Mainichi Japan, 22 May 2014, editorial, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/perspectives/news/20140522p2a00m0na003000c.html [8] “Early restart of nuclear reactors crucial for stable power supply”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 17 May 2014, http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001287769

Disclaimer – The views expressed are of the author.

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