Five Years After the Fukushima Accidents: Thinking about Nuclear Power and Safety

M. V. Ramana

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the multiple accidents at Fukushima Daiichi, the Japanese government organized a memorial ceremony in Tokyo. At a press conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that Japan simply “cannot do without nuclear power” but that his government would try to reduce dependence on nuclear power. Abe also insisted that safety was the government’s “top priority.” Similar assertions are commonly made by government leaders in various countries that either have a large nuclear power capacity or have plans for such a large capacity. Unfortunately, reality is quite different.

Let’s start with Japan. Quite contrary to Abe’s first statement, Japan has indeed been doing without nuclear power for much of the last five years since the Fukushima accident. According to data reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the share of nuclear power in electricity generation in Japan in 2011, 2012, and 2013 was 18.1, 2.1 and 1.7 percent respectively. In 2014, nuclear power contributed precisely zero percent of the electricity generated in Japan. (For comparison, the corresponding shares in India, according to the IAEA, were 3.7, 3.6, 3.5 and 3.5 percent.) The bottom line is that Abe doesn’t have to try very hard to reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear power – he just has to stop trying to reopen nuclear plants and accelerating the use of renewables and increase the efficiency of energy use. Renewables have been slowly growing in their share of electricity generation already, increasing from 9.7 percent in 2010 (FY) to 12.2 percent in 2014.

The declining trend of nuclear power is not specific to Japan or India. Globally, too, the share of nuclear power has been dropping, from 12 percent in 2011 to 10.8 percent in 2014. The 2014 share of nuclear power is nearly 39 percent below the historical maximum of 17.6 percent in 1996. In other words, the world’s “dependence” on nuclear power has been declining. Future prospects for nuclear share of electricity generation are no better, even according to the IAEA, whose official objective is “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”. Its projections for nuclear power’s share in 2030 range from 11.3 percent in its high estimate to 8.6 percent in its low estimate, with even lower projections for 2050.

This reflects the fact that in many countries, future projections of nuclear power have been declining. Two examples should suffice as evidence. Let us start with India. In 2010, the Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) announced a target of 35 GW by 2020. But in 2015, Nalinesh Nagaich, a Director of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), announced that there had been “an internal revision in the target in July 2014” and that resulted in a target of “approximately 14,500 MWe by 2024″ — in other words, 14.5 GW not 35 GW, a reduction by over 60 percent, even neglecting the difference in dates, and the low probability of even achieving the 14.5 GW target.

Now for China, the country constructing the largest number of nuclear plants. In 2010, the official target was 70 GW (70,000 MW) by 2020, and in 2009, the director of science and technology at a major state-owned enterprise involved in constructing and operating nuclear power plants, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), announced that “reaching 70GW before 2020 will not be a big problem”. That proved not to be the case and China’s current target for 2020 is only 58 GW.

Now for Abe’s second statement about safety being the government’s “top priority.” There is ample evidence from the Japanese government’s anxious attempts to restart various nuclear reactors that safety is by no means the top priority. Just two days before the fifth anniversary of Fukushima, a Japanese district court cited “safety concerns” when issuing an injunction that stopped operations of two nuclear reactors in western Japan, something that is unlikely if safety was indeed the “top priority”. This suspicion is borne out by an examination of the government’s case for restarting the Sendai nuclear plant, by Tadahiro Katsuta, a nuclear physicist and an associate professor at Meiji University in Japan, who argued that “financial considerations and worries about the health of the national and local economies triumphed over safety concerns”.

Again, similar claims about nuclear safety being the top priority are regularly made in other countries as well, but actual decisions are often made on the basis of other priorities. The Chinese government, for example, talks about giving “top priority to nuclear safety”, but wherever nuclear safety competes with “other priorities— such as the economic interests of local governments and nuclear corporations, and central government energy and development targets”—it usually loses out.

Organizations that build or operate nuclear reactors and other facilities almost always wield significant political power. In India, the Department of Atomic Energy has used confident projections of future nuclear growth to achieve and maintain political power. This power manifests itself in a variety of ways, many of which are not conducive to nuclear safety. These include weak regulation, often made weaker through regulatory capture and other means, and mechanisms allowing the externalization and socialization of costs while privatizing profits (for example, liability laws that cap the extent to which nuclear organizations have to pay for accident-related damage). Likewise, in the case of Japan, the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation’s Independent Investigation Commission identified “the sweetheart relationships and revolving door that connected the regulatory bodies and electric companies, academics, and other stakeholders in the nuclear community” as one cause of the Fukushima accident. The bottom line is that there are a whole host of organization reasons why safety is unlikely to be “top priority”.

Many proponents of nuclear energy overlook these organizational lacunae and claim that despite all the many problems observed around the world, nuclear reactors can be safe. However, this claim is beside the point. The key question is not whether nuclear reactors can be safe, but whether they will be safe. The weight of the evidence suggests that the answer is no. Five years after Fukushima (and lest we forget, thirty years after Chernobyl), one obvious consideration that should guide any discussions about nuclear power should be the possibility of nuclear facilities undergoing catastrophic accidents with long-lasting and wide-ranging effects.


M.V. Ramana is at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, and author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.


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