By Suvendrini Kakuchi
TOKYO - Japan plans to boost civilian nuclear exports even as it tries to appease its population angered at radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, crippled by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, last year.
"The reason why Japan is taking these dangerous [export] steps is to gain business opportunities and diplomatic clout with developing countries," said Yuki Tanabe, an expert at the Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society (JACSES).
Last month, bills to allow export of nuclear plants to Vietnam and Jordan, as part of bilateral co-operation, were approved by the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has justified the deals saying these countries "badly want Japan's high-level technology". But Noda also said that Japan must help "enhance the safety of nuclear power plants in those countries".
Agreements are pending with several others countries, including India, Bangladesh and Turkey, covering the construction of power plants, their operation and management by Japanese companies.
Environment activists in Japan and the recipient countries have joined hands against these projects in a campaign that has gained momentum as a result of radiation leakage at Fukushima.
Apart from the huge health risks posed by radioactive contamination, activists are pointing to the exorbitant costs of nuclear power that have been all too evident in Japan over the past few months.
Radiation contamination following the meltdown at Fukushima has forced more than 150,000 people living in the vicinity to flee.
Additionally, tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land have been declared dangerous for food production. Tests conducted this month in the surrounding sea have indicated contamination of marine resources, making them inedible.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima reactor, is now faced with compensation payments worth more than US$60 billion forcing it to request public funding.
Such difficult issues were highlighted at an anti-nuclear conference this week in Yokohama organized by Japanese and international grassroot organizations lobbying for a nuclear-free world. Speakers from countries such as South Korea, Canada and the European Union presented cases that illustrated strong domestic opinion against nuclear power.
Praful Bidwai, an internationally known Indian campaigner for safe and renewable energy, explained the importance of regular protests and demonstrations by local people who live close to nuclear power plants.
Currently 3% of India's energy needs are met by nuclear plants, but plans are afoot to increase this to 20% by 2020 to support economic growth and meet power demand.
India, Bidwai said, has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and has a poor nuclear safety record, with several accidents, fires, explosions and radioactive water spills that have exposed workers and the public to radiation.
In October 2011, Noda and Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Krishna agreed to resume talks on how to create conditions for a Japanese-Indian partnership in promoting peaceful atomic energy.
Officials and business proponents of nuclear technology say that Japan's nuclear exports would continue, and they point to competition from South Korea.
But Kim Heyung of the South Korean Environment Movement against Nuclear Power, explained at Yokohama that the Fukushima accident has raised awareness among the public about the dangers of nuclear power. A poll conducted in October showed that 68% of South Koreans opposed to the building of new reactors, signaling lack of public support for six new nuclear power sites proposed by the government.
South Korea signed a new nuclear export pact with United Arab Emirates last year and is competing in Finland with Japan to win orders.
Mongolia, a uranium rich country, has also become a focal point in the anti-nuclear debate following news reports in May last year that Japan and the United States are planning to construct a spent fuel disposal facility in the country.
Selnge Lkhagvajav, a member of the Mongolian Green Party that has successfully worked against nuclear power, told the meeting in Yokohama that her country does not have the experts or technology to accept nuclear power or waste.
"Nuclear power countries see Mongolia with its lax laws as a dumping site. We will fight against such moves," she told IPS.
Japan, which depends on nuclear power for 30% of its energy, has been promising to implement stringent measures to raise the protection bar against Fukushima-type accidents. But, Tanabe from JACSES dismisses such measures as futile.
Meanwhile, ongoing stress tests ordered on nuclear facilities have drastically reduced Japan's nuclear energy output. Activists see in this an opportunity for the country to look for safer energy sources....
"We would like to work with the people of Japan so that it is clear what there is to learn from the accident," said commission head Kiyoshi Kurokawa during a press briefing held in the parliamentary museum in the Kasumigaseki government district. "Our aim is to solidly verify what happened in the accident."
The commission aims to establish the direct and indirect causes of the March 2011 meltdown - the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union 25 years before - that displaced 100,000 people across Fukushima prefecture from their homes and led to the radioactive contamination of the air, soil and sea. The disaster was triggered by an undersea earthquake in March 2011 and subsequent tsunami that battered the shores of Japan.
The commission will also investigate the effectiveness of the measures taken in response to the accident and come up with concrete suggestions that should be adopted to prevent future accidents at nuclear power plants in earthquake-prone Japan.
An unstated goal of the parliamentary commission is to set itself apart from a government-appointed commission that looked what went wrong in the wake of the accident at the at the plant, including the response from the government emergency headquarters. This commission has already released a 507-page interim report, published last month, for which it interviewed more than 400 people.
The parliamentary commission will draw on the efforts of this government-appointed commission to avoid doubling up the work.
But it will also make its own requests for materials from the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant's operator. "There are barriers as to how much investigative ability the commission has," said Kurokawa, a youthful 75-year-old Professor Emeritus in Medicine from the University of Tokyo. "But even so, we are going to make the process extremely meaningful."
It will also conduct its own interviews. "There were politicians in favor of interviewing witnesses under oath and asked if that is possible in Japan. In the United States, the president has to make an oath as part of that nation's constitution. But is there such a sense of value in Japan?" asked Kurokawa. "I do not think that we will be able to introduce such a system, but we will do our best with the constraints that we have."
The interviews may never be released to the public for reasons of confidentiality. The nine-member commission includes some of Japan's fiercest critics of nuclear power.
The move comes as Japan plans to boost civilian nuclear exports. "The reason why Japan is taking these dangerous steps [exports] is to gain business opportunities and diplomatic clout with developing countries," explained Yuki Tanabe, an expert at the Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society, Inter-Press Service (IPS) reported.
Last month, bills to allow export of nuclear plants to Vietnam and Jordan, as part of bilateral cooperation, were approved by the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives, IPS added.
Science journalist and former engineer Mitsuhiko Tanaka is another commission member. He says he helped conceal a manufacturing deficit at the stricken Fukushima plant as an employee in the 1970s. He also says the plant may have been damaged by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake before the waves of the tsunami knocked out its cooling system, triggering a triple meltdown.
The commission is supported by a staff of six from the Upper and Lower Houses of the Diet, four people from the National Diet Library and around 50 people from the private sector.
The result of its investigation will be presented to both houses of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, by the middle of 2012.
Various other commissions are at work verifying the exact causes of the nuclear accident, reflecting a cultural tendency in disaster-prone Japan to do everything one can possibly do to avert natural and man-made accidents.
This includes one set by plant operator Tepco, one of the Science Ministry looking into radiation monitoring and the release of its results through a million dollar system called SPEEDI, and an independent commission set up by Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister.
Hatoyama sent shock waves through Japan's nuclear community last month after calling for the nationalization of the tsunami-hit plant in the British scientific magazine Nature. It was the result of the work by Team B, the commission founded by Hatoyama in response to the accident.
Team B was set up to provide an account of the nuclear accident that is independent from the government, Tepco, and the nuclear watchdog under the trade ministry, the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency. It has called for establishment of a worst-case scenario for the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
"As long as the plant is not nationalized, the Tokyo Electric Power Company has the right to retain secrets," said Tomoyuki Taira during an interview with Asia Times Online from his office. The 52-year-old first term lawmaker heads Team B and co-authored the Nature article with Hatoyama.
"As a former engineer, the idea of 'fail safe' is indispensable to me," he said. "With that I mean that even in the case something goes wrong and an accident does occur, everything must be done in order to protect human life and the environment."
Team B was formed out of necessity and not as a critique of government, says Taira. Another reason was a lack of openness on part of Tepco. The power company delayed making public the instruction manuals that were used in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant at the time of the accident for months, first refusing completely and then handling them over blacked out.
"The government may limit the release of information in case the nuclear plant was under her jurisdiction just like Tepco does, but then parliament could pressure the government harder to release the information," said Taira. "In the case of a severe accident I am opposed to the fact that its location remains in the hands of a private company."
Team B also plans to issue a report on the nuclear accident this year.
A sensitive debate
The debate in what way Japan should continue relying on nuclear energy has shifted to a higher gear after the announcement by the government that it will push for a 40-year life span on Japan's nuclear plants, underlining the sensitivity of the matter at stake.
The Asahi Shimbun, a left leaning national daily, criticized the government of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for not reducing the dependency on nuclear power fast enough.
"Setting a legal life span of 40 years for nuclear power plants will not reduce Japan's dependency on atomic energy fast enough," the daily wrote in an editorial on January 7. "We have called for scrapping not only of aged nuclear reactors but also of reactors that are located in areas that are likely to be hit by major earthquakes and tsunamis. We have argued that nuclear plants should also be shut down if it is difficult to develop a realistic evacuation plan for an emergency."
Yomiuri Shimbun took a different tack from Asahi. The paper, Japan's most influential, pushed for the introduction of nuclear energy in the 1950s, when Japan's first budget for the construction of a nuclear power plant was assigned. Its position is against the proposed law revision to limit the life span of nuclear plants.
"Elsewhere in the world, it is rare for a country, except for those advocating the abandonment of nuclear power generation, to stipulate by law the life span of a nuclear power station," the paper said. "Meanwhile, discussion is still under way within the government as to what kind of power supply the nation should have in the future. It seems too abrupt for the government to come up with such a policy now."
Lawmaker Taira said he hoped the proposed 40-year limit on the life span of power plants would speed up the shift to green energy, while at the same time saying that Japan should keep a single reactor for research purposes. "This law revision is a very big step," he said.
Taira quickly added multiple times that he is not opposed to nuclear power out of principle, underlining the sensitivity of the nuclear debate in Japan. "It is very easy to hold a placard in your hand saying you are against nuclear power," he said. "Some people have opposed nuclear energy for political purposes."
Too Much Radiation to Cover Up from Fukushima....
As I’ve pointed out since day one, the Japanese government and Tepco have covered up the extent of the radiation released by Fukushima and its health effects on the Japanese and others. See this.
The New York Times notes:
The government inspectors declared Onami’s rice safe for consumption after testing just two of its 154 rice farms.
Then … more than a dozen [farmers] found unsafe levels of cesium. An ensuing panic forced the Japanese government to intervene, with promises to test more than 25,000 rice farms in eastern Fukushima Prefecture, where the plant is located.
The repeated failures have done more than raise concerns that some Japanese may have been exposed to unsafe levels of radiation in their food, as regrettable as that is. They have also had a corrosive effect on public confidence in the food-monitoring efforts, with a growing segment of the public and even many experts coming to believe that officials have understated or even covered up the true extent of the public health risk in order to limit both the economic damage and the size of potential compensation payments.
Critics say … the government can no longer pull the wool over the public’s eyes, as they contend it has done routinely in the past.
“Since the accident, the government has tried to continue its business-as-usual approach of understating the severity of the accident and insisting that it knows best,” said Mitsuhiro Fukao, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo who has written about the loss of trust in government. “But the people are learning from the blogs, Twitter and Facebook that the government’s food-monitoring system is simply not credible.”
“No one trusts the national government’s safety standards,” said Ichio Muto, 59, who farms organic mushrooms in Nihonmatsu, 25 miles northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The Japan Times reports:
The government buried a worst-case scenario for the Fukushima nuclear crisis that was drafted last March and kept it under wraps until the end of last year, sources in the administration said Saturday.
After the document was shown to a small, select group of senior government officials at the prime minister’s office in late March, the administration of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan decided to quietly bury it, the sources said.
“When the document was presented (in March), a discussion ensued about keeping its existence secret,” a government source said.
In order to deny its existence, the government treated it as a personal document of Japan Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Shunsuke Kondo, who authored it, until the end of December, the sources said.
It was only then that it was actually recognized as an official government document, they said.
“The content was so shocking that we decided to treat it as if it didn’t exist,” a senior government official said.
Major Japanese broadcaster NHK purportedly stopped a reporter in mid-sentence on March 12th as he was discussing the exposure of the nuclear fuel rods above the cooling pool, telling him:
They say you mustn’t read this draft.
Held, threatened, and shaken down for bribes before being detained without counsel or a phone call. He says he was eventually deported, though not before being ordered to sign a falsified confession and being threatened by an official at gunpoint.