Two of Japan’s reactors—Units 1 and 2 of the Kyushu Electric Power Company’s Sendai nuclear power plant—have just restarted, and Unit 1 should begin generating electricity on August 14. Like all other Japanese nuclear power plants, Sendai was shut down after the events at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, in which an earthquake, a tsunami, egregious design mistakes, and a poor safety culture combined to form “a cascade of stupid errors” that led to a triple meltdown.
This is the first restart of any of Japan’s 43 operable commercial reactors since Fukushima, and it is happening despite many unresolved questions concerning nuclear safety regulations. When it comes to safety, the Sendai nuclear power plant is definitely not at the head of the class: The utility owning the power plant was given a pass despite a very problematic history. (At one point, a regulatory commissioner called the plan to restart Sendai “wishful thinking”.)
There is certainly no nationwide re-emergence of nuclear power in Japan. Indeed, there have been vocal public protests against the Sendai restart. One of the protestors even included a former prime minister of Japan.
So, why is it happening? What are the ostensible reasons for a restart? Were they valid?
A three-pointed rationalization. The justification for a restart was based upon three key points: the type of reactors to be used at Sendai were considered inherently “safer;” the chance of a similar natural disaster(s) was considered to be minimal; and the concerns of the local communities were dismissed as inconsequential.
Concerns of the local communities were dismissed. After the Nuclear Regulation Authority granted its approval in regards to the safety requirements, the final hurdle was to secure approval from two of the local governments: Kagoshima prefecture and Satsumasendai city. If they agreed, then the Sendai facility could restart.
Other neighboring communities, including six cities and two towns, had asked that the prefecture and the city include them in the list of “local governments of the nuclear power plant site.” They based their request on the fact that they would likely be affected by any radioactive contamination—after all, the plume caused by the Fukushima accident spread over 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the reactor site. But only those communities within 8 to 10 kilometers (about 5 to 6 miles) from the Sendai nuclear power plant were allowed to participate.
Satsumasendai city receives more than $12 million in grants annually from the nuclear industry, which it uses to pay for its public and educational facilities, receiving about $270 million over the years. According to the Satsumasendai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the overall economic benefit of the restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant is approximately $25 million to the local economy yearly.
There are also questions of transparency in the dealings of local government authorities with Kyushu Electric Power. According to an article published this January by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, construction companies run by members of the Kagoshima prefectural assembly received 26 orders for construction work at Sendai, representing $2.5 million of work, in the three years since the Fukushima accident. Not surprisingly, these members of the prefectural assembly endorsed the restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant.
According to a survey conducted this May by a major local newspaper, Minami–Nippon Shimbun, 59.9 percent of those polled were against a restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant. But their opinions may not be regarded as important because they have no economic significance. In this way, strict regulations are not being applied to nuclear decisions, even after the Fukushima accident. Economics was considered more important than human life: That is why the Sendai nuclear power plant was able to restart.
Read more at Why was the Sendai nuclear power plant restarted?