The decision of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) to approve the draft assessment for the two Sendai nuclear reactors in Kyushu is a clear and dangerous signal that Japan's nuclear village—industry, regulators and government—is deliberately and cynically ignoring the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The approval of the assessment is the first step in restarting the Sendai reactors.
The two Sendai reactors have been shutdown since 2011. These are old reactors—29 and 30 years respectively. Nuclear reactors, no matter what age, are inherently at risk of an accident, but the older the plant the greater the risk. A car designed four decades ago and operating for 30 years in no way can meet safety standards of the present day. Fukushima has shown again that nuclear reactors have the potential to devastate a region and its people.
The citizens of Japan know that the Sendai reactors are not safe to operate. When the NRA announced it was putting the reactors at the top of the list for review, 6,000 people demonstrated in Kagoshima near the plant. According to an opinion poll by Greenpeace Japan, less than 10 percent of the people living within a 30km radius of the Sendai nuclear power plant think they can evacuate without being exposed to radiation if a severe nuclear accident were to occur.
Last week, Aira city councillors voted 23 to 1 against restarting the Sendai reactors. Aira, in Kagoshima Prefecture, lies only 30km from the Sendai nuclear reactors and is a designated evacuation point in the event of a severe accident.
The regulators have accepted the view of Kyushu Electric Power Company, the Sendai operator, that the seismic and tsunami risks are low at the site. This is despite a warning from independent seismologists that the science of earthquakes is such that it is not possible to predict where an event will happen and its strength. No tsunami sea wall has been built at the Sendai plant.
The major issues of concern at Sendai include: no effective evacuation plan for the populations in the region, no functioning emergency response centre protected against radiation, and the failure of Kyushu Electric and the NRA to conduct robust assessments on volcano risk.
Like many nuclear plants in Japan, Sendai is close to an active volcano—in this case, Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and one of the few that are at present in constant (persistent) activity. This volcano is about 70km from the Sendai nuclear plant. Ongoing, typical activity ranges from strong strombolian (low-level eruptions) to large ash explosions every 4-24 hours.
The Sakurajima volcano is of major concern to many experts, including vulcanologists, with the threat that in the event of an eruption, it could take out offsite electric power to the plant. The same eruption could clog the air intakes of diesel generators, the only source of ongoing power if the offsite power is taken out of service. A station blackout was what led to the loss of cooling function at Fukushima and the subsequent reactor meltdowns.
The nuclear village in Japan was one of the principal reasons why the Fukushima accident took place. While the Abe administration and nuclear industry may prefer to forget the lessons of 2011 the people of Japan will not. They are determined to stop the planned restart of Japan's nuclear reactors.
As we approach the one year birthday of no nuclear-powered electricity in Japan (the last of the country's remaining 48 reactors were shutdown in September 2013) it is clear that Japan can function as a society without risking catastrophic nuclear accidents, while rapidly growing its renewable energy sector and embracing efficiency. The NRA decision may make headlines around the world but Japan is a long long way from restarting its large nuclear program—and the people of Japan are determined to make its future energy path a very different one from its past.
A federal judge has told the people of Vermont that a solemn contract between them and the reactor owner Entergy need not be honored.
The fight will almost certainly now go to the U.S. Supreme Court. At stake is not only the future of atomic power, but the legitimacy of all deals signed between corporations and the public. Chief Justice John Roberts' conservative court will soon decide whether a private corporation can sign what should be an enforceable contract with a public entity and then flat-out ignore it.
In 2003, Entergy made a deal with the state of Vermont. The Louisiana-based nuke speculator said that if it could buy and operate the decrepit Vermont Yankee reactor under certain terms and conditions, the company would then agree to shut it down if the state denied it a permit to continue. The drop dead date: March 21, 2012.
In the interim, Vermont Yankee has been found leaking radioactive tritium and much more into the ground and the nearby Connecticut River. Under oath, in public testimony, the company had denied that the pipes that leaked even existed.
One of Yankee's cooling towers has also collapsed...just plain crumbled.
One of Yankee's siblings—Fukushima One—has melted and exploded (Vermont Yankee is one of some two dozen Fukushima clones licensed in the U.S.).
In the face of these events, the legislature, in partnership with Vermont's governor, voted 26-4 to deny Entergy a permit to continue. But the company is determined to continue reaping huge profits on a 35-year-old reactor—long since amortized at public expense—with very cheap overhead based on slipshod operating techniques where safety always comes second. Along the way Entergy has also tried to stick Vermont Yankee into an underfunded corporate shell aimed at shielding it from all economic liabilities.
To allow Vermont Yankee to continue fissioning, Judge J. Garvin Murtha latched onto Entergy's argument that the state legislature committed the horrible sin of actually discussing safety issues. These, by federal law, are reserved for Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He chose to ignore the serious breach of contract issues involved.
As Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network puts it: "Entergy's lawyers cherry-picked legislators' questions about safety" from a previous debate relating to nuclear waste. "Judge Murtha supported the corporation over the will of the people."
The surreal nature of telling a state it can't vote to shut a reactor because it dared to consider the public health dates to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. To paint a happy face on the atomic bomb, Congress essentially exempted the nuclear power industry from public accountability. It gave the Atomic Energy Commission sole power to both regulate and promote its "too cheap to meter" technology.
Some 67 years later, Judge Murtha says the legislature's encroachment on the province of safety means Entergy can violate its solemn legal agreement with the people of Vermont.
In practical terms, this could mean that any corporation can bust any public trust on even the flimsiest pretext. Let the corporate lawyers find some pale excuse and the company can skirt its contractual obligations. In the hands of the supremely corporatist Roberts Court, this case could join Citizens United in a devastating one-two punch for the unrestrained power of the private corporation.
It would also put the reactor industry even further beyond control of the people it irradiates.
Thankfully, the judge did not entirely rule out the possibility of the state taking some kind of action. Vermont's Public Service Board still has the right to deny Entergy an extension. Perhaps the commissioners will ban the word "safety" from all proceedings. If they do say Vermont Yankee must be shut, Entergy's legal team will certainly even newer, more creative ways to appeal.
Vermonters will stage a shutdown rally March 21. Local activism against the reactor continues to escalate.
No U.S. reactor has been ordered and completed since 1973. Shutting Vermont Yankee or any of the other 104 American reactors now licensed might well open the floodgates to shutting the rest of them, as Germany is now doing.
Karl Grossman has suggested Vermont use eminent domain to shut Vermont Yankee, as New York did 20 years ago to bury the $7 billion Shoreham reactor, which was stopped from going into commercial operation.
However it happens, the people of Vermont are in a race against time to prevent another Fukushima in their back yard—which is also all of ours.
"When this rogue corporation is again rejected," says Katz, "the will of the people and democracy will be upheld. Lets commit to doing whatever we can to at last make a nuclear corporation keep its word."