Japan appears poised to give nuclear power another chance, just over two years after the reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant forced it to rethink its enthusiasm for atomic energy.
The earthquake and tsunami that triggered the triple meltdown on March 11, 2011, rocked Japan's confidence in the safety of its nuclear facilities, forcing it to abandon plans to raise its dependence on nuclear from about a third of its total energy needs to more than 50 percent by 2030.
Now, all but two of the country's 50 working reactors stand idle; none will be able to resume operations unless they meet strict safety standards introduced this week by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, a new industry watchdog agency formed to help win over a deeply skeptical public.
The shift toward a bigger role for nuclear in Japan's energy mix began this week when four operators applied to restart 10 reactors at five plants. If the reactors meet the new standards – safety reviews are expected to take at least six months – the first could go back on line within a year.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority was launched last year to replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission, whose collusive ties to the industry were partly blamed for causing the March 2011 disaster. The authority’s chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, said the new regulations "have come close to reaching international standards, having lagged behind before."
"We have put a lot of consideration into countermeasures against externally caused accidents, presupposing the harsh natural environment in Japan," he said at a recent briefing. "That means our regulations are among the most stringent standards globally."
Japan under pressure
Pressure for a return to a limited form of nuclear power production is strongest among Japan’s nine nuclear power plant operators, which suffered record losses last year amid soaring fuel costs.
But Paul J. Scalise, a research fellow at the University of Tokyo and an expert on energy markets, says that given the practical and financial hurdles to filling the huge energy gap left by nuclear with more oil and gas imports or renewables, Japan has little choice other than to consider reactor restarts.
"[The restarts] are a financial and economic necessity," he says. "The utilities are bleeding money, and fast."
Mr. Scalise notes that fuel costs for Japan's utilities rose 36 percent last year. At the end of fiscal year 2012, four of Japan's nine nuclear power operators posted their largest losses ever.
"Clearly, that's unsustainable in the short term, let alone in the long term," he says. "Bankruptcy will become a reality, so it's clear that something needs to be done."
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has made no secret of his support for nuclear restarts, but insists that the days of collusion between pro-nuclear politicians and the industry, and of leaving safety precautions solely in the hands of operators, are over.
The new regulations require plants for the first time to fit reactors with special filters to minimize radiation leaks during Fukushima-type accidents, take measures to prevent terrorist attacks, and ensure that staff can oversee an effective post-disaster response even if the plant itself is inaccessible.
In light of the Fukushima accident, coastal plants must have higher protective sea walls to protect plants against tsunamis, along with sturdier structures that are better able to withstand powerful earthquakes.
What’s the biggest obstacle?
Winning approval for restarts from local politicians could be the biggest obstacle to the restarts, although the consent of nearby communities is not a legal requirement.
Tepco, the utility that operates Fukushima Daiichi, faces a mounting bill for compensation and decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi, but was last week forced to ditch an application to restart two reactors in Niigata, central Japan, amid fierce opposition from the prefecture's governor, Hirohiko Izumida.
He said the firm had failed to explain its plan to local people before submitting the application. "Why did you rush into this decision?" a furious Mr. Izumada was quoted as asking Tepco's president, Naomi Hirose. "Money or safety, which is more important?"
Mr. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is alone among Japan's main parties in opposing a total nuclear phaseout – a move supported by a majority of Japanese voters.
Public skepticism will not have been eased by reports this week of dramatic increases in radiation levels in ground water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site.
A well between the damaged reactor No. 2 and the sea showed levels of radioactive cesium-134 were 90 times higher on Monday than they had been three days earlier, while readings for cesium-137 were 85 times higher.
The discovery underlines plant workers' continuing struggle to cope with the buildup of contaminated water after it has been pumped into three damaged reactors to keep them cool.
Yet nuclear safety has not been a factor in determining how most people voted in recent national and local elections.
"Another public bailout of the utilities is very unlikely," Scalise says. "People don't want their taxes to be spent on that or for their electricity bills to keep going up. That's why the reactors need to go back on line.
"If history is any guide, it is very possible that individuals will change their opinion ... they'll shift to another issue, such as the threat from China or the economy."
Mr. Tanaka of the Nuclear Regulation Authority conceded that complacency among Japan's nuclear plant operators had contributed to the Fukushima accident, but added, "It's important that we reflect on these deficiencies and then redress them."
He would not comment on any individual applications for reactor restarts, adding that the delicate task of winning over public opinion was the job of politicians and the utilities.
"I've always said that as long as the operator meets all of the requirements, we will be in a position to decide at a relatively early stage whether or not a reactor can be restarted," he says.
"It's quite natural for operators to want to put their reactors back on line given the impact the closures are having on their corporate operations. But if an operator does not obey our requests on safety, it won't be able to proceed with its plan, let alone restart its reactors."
Goshi Hosono, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which is committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2040, cast doubt on the new watchdog's independence.
"What is important is whether [it] is able to make thoroughly independent and unbiased decisions," he says. "I am concerned that there is a movement visible within the LDP to attempt to apply pressure to an independent regulatory body.
"This is a problem. I believe that the backdrop to this is the movement to change the direction of Japan's nuclear policy in a drip, drip, drip way. It seems like the movement toward maintaining nuclear power has been strengthened, and this makes me extremely worried."