Beginning of the end for nuclear power in Japan?

Problems in stabilizing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have hardened attitudes: More than 80 percent of Japanese now say they are antinuclear and distrust government information on radiation.

Kyodo News/AP
People protest against nuclear plants in front of the Fukushima governor's office where the offsite crisis management center is located, in Fukushima, northeastern Japan, on Sunday, June 19. Banners read: 'Stop nuclear power plants.'

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant may spell the end of nuclear power in resource-poor Japan, as citizen opposition grows and local authorities refuse permission to restart reactors that have undergone safety checks.

Following the latest setback in the operation to stabilize reactors at the plant over the weekend, when a new system for removing radioactivity from cooling water had to be shut down shortly after it came online, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s road map for a complete cold shutdown by January looks increasingly unachievable.

The continued inability of TEPCO to bring the situation at Fukushima under control – three months after the incident began – is hardening attitudes against nuclear power in Japan. Recent opinion polls conducted by Japanese news agencies have found between 75 and 80 percent of Japanese people are now in favor of scrapping all of Japan’s 54 reactors. This represents a sea change of opinion. Before the current crisis, most people accepted the nuclear industry and government line that Japan – with almost no fossil fuel energy resources of its own – had no choice but to rely on atomic energy despite the potential danger posed by earthquakes.

One of the polls also found that more than 80 percent of Japanese no longer trust TEPCO or government information on the Fukushima crisis.

“Very few people around here believe what TEPCO says; it’s not just the Fukushima accident this time, they have a history of covering things up and bullying people who speak out against them,” said Norihiro Endo, a company president from Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima, 60 miles from the plant. “And the government gets most of its information on Fukushima from TEPCO, so it’s difficult to trust what they are saying too.”

On Saturday, which marked the 100th day since the disaster, Industry Minister Banri Kaieda called for local governments to allow the restarting of the 18 reactors that have passed recent safety checks. Operations at 35 reactors are currently suspended. The minister warned that further power shortages would hamper rebuilding and recovery efforts in the devastated northeast region, and cause further damage to manufacturing industries, which have suffered since the March 11 disaster.

However, local authorities are skeptical that sufficient safety measures have been implemented and are reluctant to give their permission – now required by law – to bring the suspended reactors back online.

The governor of Osaka Prefecture, Toru Hashimoto, an outspoken critic of the government and the nuclear power industry, is flatly refusing to allow reactors in his prefecture to restart operations.

“It’s a complete abdication of responsibility to start these plants up again after what has happened at Fukushima,” Mr. Hashimoto told reporters. “The nuclear industry keeps saying they’re safe. If they’re so safe, the senior executives of the power companies should come and live next door to them.”

Filter problems

The problem with the water decontamination system last weekend occurred when a filter component, supplied by US firm Kurion was found to be saturated with radiation after only five hours. It was expected to last a month. This was due to “high levels of radioactivity in the water the system was treating," according to TEPCO spokesperson Junichi Matsumoto.

The system is designed to allow water used to cool the damaged reactors to be recycled and thus avoid adding to the thousands of tons of radioactive water at the site. In addition to the containment vessel leaks, TEPCO says that all of its storage capacity will be full by the end of this month. If a solution isn’t implemented before then, the company may have to dump more of the highly radiated water into the Pacific Ocean.

TEPCO is due to restart the filtering process on Tuesday following trial runs and adjustments.

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