January 2000

Nuclear Power Development Plan needs re-examining

Asahi News Service, December 24, 1999

[Posted 11/01/2000]

Asahi Shimbun said in an editorial:

Hisashi Ouchi, who was exposed to a massive dose of radiation in the criticality incident in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, at the end of September, is the first fatality of a nuclear accident in the history of Japan's nuclear development. His death underscores the question of whether nuclear energy is really safe. The direct cause of the accident was illegal work for processing enriched uranium by using a bucket. It triggered nuclear fission of uranium and threw the local community into great confusion and anxiety. Everybody must have intimately felt the danger of nuclear energy that went out of control. The matter is not a question for a single workplace. Rather, it should be understood as a problem for nuclear facilities as a whole.

And the perception of safety in nuclear development must be radically changed. It is indispensable to strengthen the powers of the Nuclear Safety Commission, the highest organ for regulating nuclear safety in this country. Perhaps the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, which has huge power and staff, can serve as a useful reference.

The duty of the Nuclear Safety Commission is to double-check the safety measures overseen by regulatory agencies. But it must also have power to directly examine safety measures taken by the operators of nuclear power plants. What must be considered above all is the relevance of the current energy policy that heavily depends on nuclear energy. In an editorial three years ago, we argued that the proportion of electric power generated by nuclear plants in the total electricity should be kept at the present level of about 30 percent. But because of the criticality incident, we now propose that the construction of nuclear plants be put on hold for about two years and intensive discussion be held on how to handle nuclear energy in a forum open to the public. The government's scenario of steeply increasing nuclear energy has already come apart. The Long-term Prospect of Supply and Demand of Energy adopted by the government last year says that the only way to supply energy necessary for an annual economic growth of about 2 percent-while being attentive to the global environment-was to increase power generation by nuclear plants. It envisions building about 20 nuclear power plants by 2010 and increasing the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear reactors to 45 percent of the total electricity. Due to the difficulty of finding available sites for nuclear power plants, however, nobody-none even among government officials and executives of electric power companies-thinks the scenario will come true. The unrealistic plan to build 20 nuclear powers should be formally withdrawn. To stick to the plan while knowing full well that it cannot be carried out jeopardizes the government's credibility. It also confuses the actual policy-makers fighting global warming. We propose to set up a panel in the Cabinet or the Diet for frank and realistic discussions with the participation of representatives of ordinary citizens, nongovernmental organizations and political parties, including opponents of nuclear power plants. The Diet should make the final decision on the panel's recommendation. The subject of the panel's discussion should not be nuclear power generation alone.

The policy of recycling of nuclear fuel by extracting plutonium from spent fuel should also be thoroughly talked about. It is hoped that political parties take part in the discussions after clarifying their nuclear policies.

Nuclear power generation produces a large quantity of energy but is fraught with problems. It has a danger of devastating accidents like the one at Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. It leaves behind waste that emits radioactivity for tens of thousands of years. The government's position that power can be produced by nuclear plants at a small cost is being called into question. Due to such circumstances, there is a tendency among many developed countries not to increase dependence on nuclear power. In the United States, no nuclear power plant has been built in the last 20 years.

The way to be freed from nuclear power generation, however, is not easy. For instance, in Sweden, which adopted a policy of abolishing all nuclear plants by 2010 under a 1980 referendum, only one nuclear generator has been shut down in recent years. Still, there are criticisms against the shutdown of the generator. Extrication from the nuclear power generation is difficult because nuclear power is already an indispensable source of energy in many countries. If nuclear power is to decrease, what should be done about the electricity now supplied by it? What should be done about the international commitment to reduce emission of carbon dioxide for the prevention of global warming? Concrete measures must be thought out for each of these questions. People's daily lives will inevitably be affected by the abolition of nuclear power. Are people prepared to endure inconvenience and accept a lower standard of living? Will the adverse effects on the economy be tolerated? These questions cannot be answered without a nationwide discussion. The government argues that nuclear energy development is indispensable to a Japan that lacks natural resources. It has tried to realize nuclear fuel recycling by using extracted plutonium from spent fuel as well as attempting to build still more nuclear power plants. The government is pursuing these plans as the only available option while refusing to examine the possibility of decreasing nuclear power and giving up the use of plutonium. That will not do. It should offer multiple alternatives for the sake of a far- reaching discussion by the public. And for the electric power companies, the construction of nuclear power plants, which requires a large amount of investment money and a long preparatory period, has now become a risky business. Some take a view that managers of electric power companies will be more reluctant to build nuclear plants as the government further liberalizes generation and distribution of power and as competition in cost of power generation becomes fiercer.

Now electric power companies are going to great lengths to build gas-fired power plants on the ''combined cycle'' method that is energy efficient. While a nuclear plant turns only about 35 percent of energy into electricity, the combined cycle method converts about 50 percent of energy into electricity by using liquefied natural gas. It is said that the ratio of conversion into electricity might be raised even to 60 percent in the future. It is not surprising that some members of the long-term plan-making subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission argue that the government's basic policy of promoting nuclear energy must be re-examined. What are the important points in the drive to save energy and use natural energy? It is essential to study social systems as well as technological development.

It is also necessary to examine the merits and demerits of promoting nuclear power generation and lessening the dependence on it. This can be done by putting together opinions from people in wide-ranging fields after publicizing data and information obtained in studies and experiments. The Commission on Energy Problems in the Hokkaido prefectural government will be a useful guide in this regard. The commission, composed of members with differing views on nuclear energy, has held discussions in an open forum for the past 31 months about the construction of the third generator at the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant planned by Hokkaido Electric Power Co. The commission's report published in September offers options other than nuclear power and lists arguments both for and against these options. The latest criticality incident and the death of a worker gave rise to a common understanding among the public that development of nuclear energy is a dangerous business. Discussions on the basics of the problems can be made only on the basis of that perception.

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