Fallout from Japan disaster continues

LYING IDLE: The Tomari nuclear power plant on Japan's Hokkaido Island is waiting for approval to restart following a ...

LYING IDLE: The Tomari nuclear power plant on Japan's Hokkaido Island is waiting for approval to restart following a tightening of safety regulations after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Smiley faces here. Smiley faces there.

You see a lot of smiley faces in Japan - on buildings, boxes, signs. Even on the instruction sheet on how to use the space-age toilet in the hotel room.

"Japanese people love these goofy creatures," interpreter Megumi-san explained, saying the country was mascot mad. She recalled a European businessman advising a Japanese company to take the smiley face off a box of heavy steel products they were selling overseas, saying they would never be taken seriously in Europe.

HAPPY CHARACTER: Tomarin, the smiley-faced mascot of the Tomari nuclear power station in Hokkaido.
Paul Gorman

HAPPY CHARACTER: Tomarin, the smiley-faced mascot of the Tomari nuclear power station in Hokkaido.

So imagine our surprise when we arrived at the gates of the Tomari nuclear power station's visitor centre in snowy Hokkaido, to be greeted by a sign featuring "Tomarin", a smiley mascot in the distinctive mushroom shape of a reactor dome.

It's more than a touch ironic, because the Japanese nuclear industry doesn't have a lot to smile about at the moment. In fact it hasn't since the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

The one-in-1000 year tsunami generated by that gargantuan quake smashed into coastal parts of the northeastern coast of Honshu, and 14-metre-high surges ultimately caused a meltdown or partial meltdown (depending on who you believe) at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.

Before the accident, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) nuclear plant had the capacity to generate 4680 megawatts of electricity, making it more than four times as big as Huntly power station, New Zealand's largest plant, or nine times the size of Benmore power station. Its six reactors were among 54 operating in Japan and generating about 30 per cent of the country's electricity. It was one of the 15 largest nuclear power stations in the world.

In a nutshell, sea-water swamped the generators, the cooling systems failed, temperatures in the reactors rose above 2500 degrees Celsius, fuel rods melted and then the roofs of the reactor structures exploded, allowing gases to vent into the atmosphere. Radioactive material also leaked from damaged pipes into soil and the sea.

Japan's first nuclear emergency was declared and more than 100,000 people living within 20 kilometres of the power station were evacuated from an exclusion zone which is still in place, although some have recently chosen to move back inside it. Food supplies and water downwind of the plant were heavily irradiated and there was panic as far away as Tokyo about contamination.

GROWING CONCERNS

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On the International Nuclear Event Scale, the Fukushima-Daichi disaster rates just below Chernobyl as the world's worst nuclear accident. It has been classified as a seven on a scale of seven for the "major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures".

As well as failures and partial meltdowns at other nuclear plants caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, there has been a string of other accidents over the past 30 years, many of which the populace was unaware of due to information being suppressed or concealed, or even falsified by Tepco officials in the case of cracks found in 13 of its 17 reactor covers in 2002.

The Japanese were, in the past, happy to trust in their officials and accept assurances that all was OK, but the Fukushima-Daichi meltdown and obfuscation by the government and Tepco has changed that. There is now a strong anti-nuclear power lobby throughout the country that exists at many levels. Efforts to bring some plants back online post- tsunami have spluttered and failed, and no nuclear power has been generated since September last year.

There are growing concerns that nuclear energy is inappropriate for a country so prone to major earthquakes and tsunami.

That has huge ramifications for this heavily populated and highly industrialised nation. With very few natural energy resources, Japan, already the world's largest importer of coal and liquefied natural gas and the second largest importer of oil, has had to make up that 30 per cent shortfall by burning more thermal fuel. Hydro power only accounts for about 8 per cent of the country's electricity and other "new" or renewable sources come to just over 2 per cent.

The exact procedure for switching on the nuclear plants when it is deemed time is unclear, with central government, prefectural government and regional power companies all likely to want their say while perhaps shying away from actually flicking the switch.

The new Nuclear Regulation Authority, with commissioners drawn largely from academia, has been charged with applying the strictest guidelines possible for the operation of nuclear plants. At the Tomari power station, for example, the Hokkaido Electric Power Company (Hepco) is pragmatic about when it can restart its three reactors.

"Number three reactor in November this year, number one in January 2016, number two in March," says Hepco public relations section manager Kazuhiro Ohtomo.

"That is our official perspective. It is just the assumption at the moment, until the commissioners say that we have the green light to operate."

Onagawa director Masaki Takahashi, whose company Takamasa & Co makes fish cake delicacies, knows all about changing Japanese perceptions to nuclear power. This man, who has done more than most to keep his tsunami-devastated town running and its people in work, was the victim of a smear campaign after the Fukushima-Daichi meltdown.

Asked what the biggest challenge was which he had faced following the tsunami, he says it was "rumours from elsewhere around the country" that the nearby Onagawa nuclear plant was "leaking radiation and contaminating our fish and products. 'Murderers', we were called."

There was no leak from the power station. Takahashi spent several million yen (tens of thousands of dollars) on radiation-detecting equipment to clear his company's name and put a stop to the gossip.

"There was no proof of it [radiation]. I make fish cakes my 2-year-old son can eat."

He says sales are not as high as they would have been without the rumours, which still persist in some circles.

MEDIA MELTDOWN

The Fukishima-Daichi disaster also caused something of a meltdown of the Japanese media. Foreign correspondents questioned the objectivity of local and national journalists, saying they were too hand-in-glove with the authorities, while overseas media were criticised for sensationalising the incident.

At a Foreign Press Centre of Japan symposium on disaster reporting it is clear feelings still run deep and the issues remain valid. Much of the comment was on coverage of the meltdown and whether it was one-sided or not. Foreign media complained about the difficultly of getting answers, while we heard the Japanese media were generally very cautious, tending to take the party line rather than push for information and question hard when the answers seem glib.

This was not censorship but "self restraint", they said.

Public broadcaster NHK especially came under fire for its softly-softly approach to the accident and for operating like a government mouthpiece. Tepco, which took a long time to answer questions following the disaster, had been a major sponsor of some of the mainstream media for many years, most notably commercial broadcasters, raising conflict of interest issues and leading to concerns about NHK's objectivity.

In the book Fallout from Fukushima, Nagasaki University professor of international relations Geoffrey Gunn said NHK at the time avoided hard discussion of the reality at Fukushima-Daichi but would instead show complicated charts of "pipes and valves for an hour at a time".

NHK senior commentator Noriyuki Mizuno, a panelist at the symposium, defended the channel's approach to the crisis, saying it did not want to pit experts against each other in the studio as that would not resolve whether there was a meltdown or not.

That was quite revealing because in New Zealand that is precisely what the media would do - quite rightly too - if there is suspicion of any government stalling or covering-up.

There was also talk about how media comment and reportage on the issue was further constrained by Japan's insidious "press-club" system. This involves information being passed only on to those members of the "club" by government officials, effectively locking those journalists into the "system", minimising independent scrutiny and investigation, and making them obligated if they want to continue receiving such briefings.

NUCLEAR CONUNDRUM

Tomari is the only nuclear power station in Hokkaido. Like the other nuclear plants dotted across Honshu, it too is laying idle, temporarily mothballed pending approval from the NRA and the right noises from governmental officials to start generating power again.

There's something a bit sad about a nuclear power station without any nuclear power. The three grey reactor domes, painted with patterns of green, blue and red - representing Hokkaido's forests, the adjacent sea and the sunset respectively - look like dormant volcanoes, awe-inspiring but comfortingly quiet.

On this sleety afternoon, grey is the overwhelming impression at this reclaimed coastal site. Dirty grey snow piled high, lighter steely grey clouds threatening the next icy flurry, the dark grey of the freezing sea, highlighted by the occasional whitecap.

The promotional brochure was promising clear blue skies with amazing views across the bay of Mt Yotei, a slumbering 1898m volcano about 30km to the southeast. But the bright-blue Hepco puffer jackets we have been given to wear is the only blue in evidence today.

Our hosts say this volcano and the Toyako caldera volcano 50km away are among the geological hazards being assessed by a panel of government experts prior to restart. There are also several large, active faults, some more than 30km long within 100km of the plant offshore, believed capable of generating magnitude seven-range earthquakes.

After an initial briefing at the visitors' centre, we are asked to leave behind cellphones and cameras for the tour of the plant. We have to go through strict security measures and the underside of our van is checked for bombs.

As we are driven around the somewhat depressing compound we are shown the emergency operations building, where the turbines are, and where low- and medium-grade nuclear waste is stored.

We also see the new sea wall, completed in December. The plant is already 10m above sea level, but this wall places an extra 6.5m barrier in the way of any tsunami on top of that. Ohtomo says what happened with seawater entering Fukishima-Daichi could not happen here, but of course the scale of the 2011 tsunami wasn't expected either.

Until Tomari went offline in May 2012, it supplied Hokkaido with 40 per cent of its electricity. Even then the island was heavily reliant on burning oil to generate power. Now thermal energy accounts for 80 per cent of its generation and hydro about 17 per cent.

The issue is, can Japan afford to keep burning coal and oil and gas and not bring back nuclear energy? Not only is it extremely expensive to continue doing so, but also there is a huge cost to Japan's reputation and its international standing, as other countries pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This is their nuclear conundrum.

The Press' science editor, Paul Gorman, visited Japan on an Asia New Zealand Foundation and Foreign Press Center of Japan fellowship. This series will continue next Friday.

 - The Press

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