The entire world was riveted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, which revealed the fragility of nuclear power and the potentially huge risks of poorly-situated nuclear plants. In response to the event, the Japanese government ordered all reactors closed while it assessed risks, with facilities being required to implement safety upgrades and undergo inspection before they can reopen. To date, 17 plants have applied for inspections so they can restart, but none have opened yet. Among them is the Hamaoka plant in Shinzuoka Prefecture.
Chubu Electric, the plant’s operator, is defying a government order, angering citizens, and attracting considerable argument in Japan with its decision to request an evaluation to determine if the plant can be reopened. Nuclear power in general is highly controversial in Japan in the wake of Fukushima Daiichi, with some Japanese residents wondering whether the country should be using this power source at all, given the dangers — even staunch advocates for the safety and efficiency of nuclear power have to admit that in an earthquake and tsunami-prone region of the Earth, there are some special risks.
Particularly at Hamaoka, which sits almost precisely on a location where a major earthquake is predicted to strike. The Nankai Trough megaquake, as it’s known, would be devastating, and the Hamaoka facility would be almost directly in its way. An accident at the facility could force the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, something that would be challenging to do in the midst of an ongoing natural disaster, and it would also disrupt a number of important roads and transit hubs in Japan, effectively creating a ripple across the country as food, goods and services would be delayed by road closures and other blocks. To put it in perspective, more than ten times as many people live within close range of Hamaoka as did within Fukushima.
If something happened at Hamaoka, it could be a disaster for Japan — which is why the government ordered the plant closed in 2011, after multiple warnings (some preceding the infamous earthquake and tsunami of 2011). It felt the risks were too great, and that closure of the plant was a better choice for the health and safety of the surrounding region. Chubu Electric complied, along with other operators in the process of powering down to handle safety upgrades, but now, three years later, they’re eager to see Hamaoka reopened.
In the intervening years, they’ve installed seawalls and other safety measures designed to protect the three remaining functional reactors at Hamaoka (two more have been decommissioned). Restarting the plot would boost the amount of energy Chubu Electric can generate, but at what cost? Local residents argue that they don’t want nuclear power in their backyard, an attitude that’s common in a nuclear-shy nation. Politicians and other public officials would need to approve any restart plans, and they would have the final say. Many of them are already stating that they’re reluctant to authorize a restart of the plant, and for some, keeping the plant closed been a component of campaign promises, which would make it hard to go back on their word.
What happens with Hamaoka may determine the nuclear future of Japan — and some are worried that it could spell doom for the country in the event of a major natural disaster.
The iconic cooling towers of the TVA, a familiar symbol of nuclear power. Photo credit: TVA Web Team.