Fukushima Daiichi—Five Years Later

On March 11, 2011, an historic earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and also caused three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to experience core meltdowns. Five years later, 99,750 people still cannot return to their hometowns in the Fukushima Prefecture. What are the most significant lessons we can draw from this?

Q1: What is current situation of Japan’s nuclear industry?

A1: Following the accident, all 56 nuclear power plants in Japan shut down sequentially, awaiting decisions to restart them after completion of safety reviews. The six reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi site, which is still struggling with radioactive contamination issues, will be permanently decommissioned. About ten others will also be permanently shut down. Elsewhere in Japan, the restarts are slow: only one nuclear power plant site (with two reactors) came back online last year. Two other reactors—Takahama No. 3 and No. 4—restarted recently, only to be shut down by a legal injunction several days ago. These reactors are key to Japan’s plans for using plutonium-based fuels in its light-water reactors (reactors that use regular water for coolant and as neutron moderators). Electric utilities in Japan originally planned to use plutonium fuel in 16 or 18 reactors by FY2015. This plan could be endangered by the kinds of legal actions taken by the Takahama plant’s neighboring Shiga Prefecture residents, who claimed that the reactors were unsafe.

Q2: How has Fukushima changed Japan’s nuclear industry?

A2: The Japanese government established a new regulatory authority for the nuclear industry —the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA)—in 2012 with the objective of being more independent from political and economic pressures than the previous regulator. The NRA has begun to implement some of the world’s toughest (and most expensive) safety standards. However, on February 26, 2016, Takahama No. 4 shut down three days after its restart due to a technical problem. According to press reports, Kansai EPCO did not properly calibrate equipment designed to stop reactors automatically once a high current flow to the power transmission facility has been detected. There will continue to be bumps along this road of restarting Japan’s reactors, and Japan’s nuclear industry will continue to adapt to new safety regulations just as the NRA, a new organization, will continue to learn from its experiences.

Q3: What does Japan need to do to improve public trust in nuclear energy?

A3: Five years after Fukushima-Daiichi, patterns of industry concealment of problems continue. For example, in February 2016, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), admitted that it failed for two months following the accident to declare that the reactors had experienced meltdown, even though the company’s manual clearly defined the parameters of such an incident. An early declaration would have allowed the 140,000 people who lived within 20 to 30 kilometers of the plant to evacuate rather than shelter in place. TEPCO only revealed this mistake five years later.

Looking ahead, the pressure to restart reactors may detract from the ability of utilities and the government to build trust with the public. For example, the Otsu district court, which stopped the restart of Takahama No. 3 reactor, declared that Kansai EPCO did not fully explain to citizens how it updated the Takahama nuclear power plant site under the new safety standards. The court documents also mentioned that responsibility for evacuation plans should be clearly specified and that the central government should lead evacuation planning. Beyond this, no party has been able to address the longer-term issue of what will ultimately happen to the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in the Takahama reactors once the reactors restart. The reactor operators plan to keep spent MOX fuel at reactors until it can be reprocessed, despite the fact that Japan has not announced plans for the required second reprocessing plant to process such fuel. (The existing plant at Rokkasho, cannot process spent MOX fuel). Japan’s Energy Basic Plan in 2010 indicated that Japan would build a second reprocessing plant, but this is not mentioned in the current Basic Energy Plan 2014. The disarray in Japan’s plutonium policy has international implications for the buildup of separated plutonium, a significant security concern.

Since March 2011, utilities and the NRA have released a lot of information with the aim of improving transparency, but there is little evidence of two-way communication. The decision of the Otsu district court shows continued distrust by the Japanese public of the NRA, the central government, and utilities’ actions. Without a better-defined path toward accountability (and not just transparency), long-term support for nuclear energy in Japan will be difficult to secure.

Yukari Sekiguchi is a research associate with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni

Yukari Sekiguchi