Japan's crisis

Japan's crisis


In the wake of the nuclear crisis stemming from radiation spreading from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Japanese government has started reviewing the safety features in other nuclear plants and efforts are being made to strengthen them. Japan identified the Hamoaka nuclear plant in Shizoaka prefecture in central Japan that sits near a major faultline to be the country’s most vulnerable nuclear facility.

Hamoaka is situated 150 km west of Tokyo in a region where seismologists say there is an 87 per cent chance of an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher striking in the next 30 years, raising questions over why it was built there in the first place. Prime Minister Kan Naoto, therefore, asked but could not order the plant’s owner, Chubu Electric Company, to shut down the plant until earthquake and tsunami protection can be built. Chubu is Japan’s third biggest electricity producer.

The Hamoaka nuclear plant is Japan’s ‘most dangerous’ plant and could produce ‘grave damage’ similar to the problems at Fukushima that was damaged by the earthquake of March 11, 2011. Kan thought that because of the grave impact on the Japanese people that could be incurred as a result of a serious accident at Hamoaka in the future, such a precaution needs to be taken. Though environmentalists applauded Kan’s decision to request Chubu to shut down, there were other aspects to the issue.

The loss of cooling at Fukushima plant caused explosions, which damaged buildings housing nuclear reactors and caused release of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. As a result radiation subsequently spread to the ocean when contaminated water was released into the sea. Crews are still struggling to restore cooling and contain the damage and it is hoped that success will be achieved soon.

Following the Fukushima case, the US was among one of the first countries that ordered a review of nuclear plant safety and the review by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues. In Japan too, fears rose that another large quake and tsunami could cause radiation leaks, fuelled by the direction of the wind, and could have a serious impact on Tokyo.

Fukushima’s No 3 reactor has been of particular concern as it contains plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel or MOX, and would release highly toxic plutonium in the event of a meltdown. In view of this, Kan came under intense pressure from the public and his key scientific advisers to suggest Chubu to shut down Hamoaka’s No 4 and 5 working reactors. While a third reactor has been shut down for inspection, units 1 and 2 are set to be decommissioned.

Emergency backup

If Chubu accepts Kan’s request, it will have to build a tsunami-resistant wall and install emergency backup generators to improve its ability to function after a natural disaster. Chubu needs 2 to 3 years to build a 12-metre-high tsunami wall stretching nearly a mile along the Pacific coast.

Besides Fukushima experience, the urgency of Kan’s request to Chubu was because Japan’s electricity wholesaler Japan Atomic Power found that a small amount of radiation in gas escaped from the Tsuruga nuclear plant. Though the amount of radiation at Tsuruga was estimated at about one-four hundred thousandth of the annual legal limit,  there were no changes in readings from radiation monitoring devices placed around the plant. The government has come under intense pressure to review its energy policy, of which atomic power is a major part.

While the Kan government would try to prevent the halt of the Hamoaka reactors from causing power supply problems, Chubu is confident that it can meet peak demand of 25,600 MW even if Hamoaka shuts. But relying on thermal plants to fill the power gap would push up costs by 700 million yen a day or about 256 billion yen a year. If Chubu fails to attain enough capacity because of hot summer, it could cause problems for Toyota Motor Corp, Suzuki Motor Corp and other major manufacturers with factories in the region.

Chubu Electric President Akihisa Mizuno has promised to ‘swiftly consider’ Prime Minister Kan’s request. But Kan’s request is not legally binding and therefore some people in Chubu remain reluctant to immediately comply. Shutting down Hamoaka power plant will have a large impact on local employment. The municipal assembly in Omaezaki is united in seeking enhanced safety steps while keeping the plant running.
However, in view of the sensitive nature of the issue, though Kan’s request lacks any legal basis Chubu Electric is expected to comply despite concern that closure of its only nuclear plant could result in power shortage in central Japan in the coming summer. While admitting that the request was outside Japan’s legal framework, Kan took the decision single-handedly to fend off criticism that his government was slow to act in containing the crisis at Fukushima.

While Chubu Electric is examining the possibility of boosting output from gas, oil and coal-fired plants, as well as buying power from other utilities, the company’s chairman Toshio Mita visited Qatar to discuss possible provision of LNG to help cover the shortfall. Kan’s request must not be seen that Japan’s is reviewing its nuclear energy policy in a major way.

(The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)