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Have We Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident?

Tatsujiro Suzuki, Vice Director, Professor, Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Nagasaki University

12 March 2021

in Japanese

Introduction: Looking back on the accident and lessons learned

Ten years have passed since the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The first question we must ask ourselves is whether we have reflected on and learned from the accident. With the subsequent creation of an independent Nuclear Regulation Authority and new regulatory standards, it is clear that the nuclear power plants which have been allowed to restart are safer than prior to the accident. However, this alone does not prove that we have truly reflected on and learned from the accident. I believe that the most important point we must focus on is the need to restore trust. So, how do we tackle the task of restoring trust? Instead of spending time discussing how to promote nuclear power once again, it is critical that we conduct a thorough analysis of the developments that have occurred over the past 10 years, including the current circumstances and issues after the accident, and make sincere efforts to overcome these challenges.

Specifically, I would like to consider initiatives related to the following three key issues.

Decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and addressing the issue of regional revitalization

First and foremost, the task of decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and revitalizing the local region represents the biggest challenge.

The area of the decommissioning process in which public trust has been shaken most deeply is in the treatment of contaminated water from the plant. In 2018, it was revealed that about 80 percent of treated water still contained radioactive material exceeding threshold values, despite an agreement almost having been reached with the local fishermen’s union to release treated water into the ocean.
Although talks subsequently went back to the drawing board, residents’ trust in TEPCO and METI has not been restored . What can be done to restore trust at this point? The government and TEPCO have no choice but to amend their practice of “studying” issues with the final decision already a foregone conclusion, and their only option is to strive earnestly to win back trust by conducting third-party verification, thorough disclosure of information, and sincere dialogue with the public.

Regarding revitalization of the local region, once again the trust of residents has not been sufficiently restored with relation to the disposal and storage of contaminated soil, the process for lifting evacuation zones, and the issue of compensation. On this point, in order to improve transparency and restore trust, I proposed the following three points in 2017 as governance reforms related to the decommissioning process and regional revitalization as a whole . The first is the establishment of a “Fukushima Decommissioning Organization” specializing in the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The second is the establishment of a “Fukushima Decommissioning and Revitalization Fund” to collect funds for the decommissioning and revitalization process in a broader and more transparent manner. The third is the establishment of a “Fukushima Decommissioning and Revitalization Assessment Committee” as a third-party organization tasked with monitoring the decommissioning and revitalization process. In this way, it is essential that decommissioning and revitalization efforts are linked and that they are carried out in a democratic and transparent manner.

The waste problem—spent fuel and the nuclear fuel cycle

The next issue that must be solved is the issue of how to deal with spent fuel and radioactive waste. Deeply interlinked with this issue is the “nuclear fuel cycle” policy of conducting full reprocessing of spent fuel.

In July 2020, the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant  passed the safety review by the Nuclear Regulation Authority and is scheduled to be fully operational in 2022. The MOX Fuel Fabrication Plant  also passed its safety review. Reprocessing is currently mandated as a solution to the continued buildup of spent fuel. But is reprocessing really necessary now? Isn’t it precisely now that we should be conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the nuclear fuel cycle? For example, the scope of laws governing the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste does not include spent fuel. The total reprocessing policy has led to such rigidity. Reprocessing does not change the fact that a repository is required, and until this can be secured, top priority should be placed on safe and economical dry cask storage.

Another matter that has been raised as an issue if reprocessing continues is the plutonium problem. As of the end of 2019, Japan already possesses 45.5 tons of plutonium—the largest amount among nations that do not possess nuclear weapons . Worldwide, the plutonium stockpile exceeds 500 tons, and reduction of this stockpile is considered a key task in terms of international security. From this perspective, in 2018 the Japan Atomic Energy Commission announced a policy to reduce the nation’s plutonium inventory . In order to maintain consistency with this policy, the full reprocessing policy must be reviewed.

The permanent disposal program for high-level radioactive waste will also require a fundamental review—by, for example, reviewing third-party assessment mechanisms and the consensus-building process.

Reforming the decision-making process

Finally, there is the issue of how to bridge the gap between policy direction and public opinion. Following the Fukushima accident, the public opinion regarding nuclear power underwent a complete 180 degree turn. According to a poll by the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization , in September 2010, 87.4% of respondents agreed that “nuclear power is necessary.” However, in December 2013, following the accident, this percentage had dropped to just 24.9%. Furthermore, in the latest survey (conducted October 2019), a mere 12.3% of respondents stated that “the level of nuclear power generation should be increased or maintained,” while 60.6% stated that “nuclear power should be phased out or abolished immediately .” It appears that the current administration is considering increasing the role of nuclear power to meet its goal of “carbon neutrality,” despite this policy running contrary to the above public opinion . Immediately after the accident, under the Democratic Party of Japan administration efforts were made to reflect the opinions of the general public during policymaking, by conducting “deliberative polls,” among other means. However, since the Liberal Democratic Party administration subsequently regained power, there has been virtually no attempt to reflect the opinion of the general public.

Furthermore, the current administration has displayed a serious lack of transparency in its decision-making processes in general, not only with respect to nuclear power. Preserving records of the process leading to policy decisions is also essential in order to “ensure transparency.” However, not only are these processes not being performed in a sincere and proper manner, records are even being falsified. This approach instills little trust in policies and is unlikely to result in decisions that convince the public.

Summary

I have discussed above the measures required to “restore trust,” while looking back on the Fukushima nuclear accident and reflecting on the lessons learned. What is important is that trust can be restored is through persistent efforts, one step at a time, based on a sincere reflection of why this trust was lost, and by confronting the issues head on. The accident has left a massive negative legacy. I believe that the importance of ensuring transparency in decision-making processes, including public participation, is perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident.

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