Russia and the Asia-Pacific Region

Nader Ghotbi: Japan Needs Russia to Solve its (Nuclear) Energy Crisis

September 2, 2013

The Japanese public has lost their trust in nuclear power as a safe source of energy. The public is also concerned about the possibility of another earthquake/tsunami or other unexpected but possible causes of a similar malfunctioning in the nuclear power reactors. Many people are asking whether accepting the risk of having a nuclear fall-out from a number of potential causes in Japan with its relatively small and limited land size is really a wise decision. Some of the administrators, especially those related to TEPCO, have called the nuclear disaster an accident; a review of the nuclear safety precautions taken by TEPCO prior to the Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 has shown that such assessment is not correct. Researchers believe it was “forseeable” for the industry that an earthquake at that scale could happen in the Tohoku region, and historical records of the ensuing Tsunamis confirm that. I am not saying that this was “expected”; no, it was not. The earthquake and the Tsunami that followed were “unexpected” but still “forseeable”, meaning that data existed which showed such scaled of earthquakes happened in the past and could happen anytime in the future too. The word “forseeable” has a different meaning from “predictable”. Essentially earthquakes are not predictable. “Forseeable” means the event may happen based on historical records or scientific data though it is almost impossible to “predict” or “expect” them. Therefore, the scenario of an earthquake in that magnitude to happen and a Tsunami in that scale to follow was “unexpected” but still forseeable for the industry in charge of the safety of the reactors.


Is it possible to make failsafe nuclear power reactors in Japan where earthquakes at a scale of 9 Richter and higher are “forseeable”? We already know that a few of the nuclear power reactors have been constructed over fault lines that are not “stable” enough. How about others? Many have not been updated and the results of the tests have not been all convincing. So the question cannot be answered positively with a lot of confidence. However, you need “a lot of” confidence when the consequence can be so severe.


On the other hand, right wing politicians who are inclined for a more aggressive Japan towards regional threats, especially from a nuclear armed North Korea, prefer that Japan keeps most of its nuclear power reactors running so that they at least have all the needed technology and material in hand in case a nuclear deterrent or response becomes necessary.


In the year 2012, in an international conference on bioethics held in Kumamoto University there was a unanimous consensus that the disaster should be called not after the “victims” (people residing in Tohoku, Fukushima, etc.) but after those whose neglect resulted in the “forseeable” consequences. The ensuing environmental pollution with radioactive isotopes (especially Strontium) which continues in the form of hundreds of tons of contaminated water leaking into the ocean as well as contaminating the groundwater is a concern not only to the Japanese (local fisheries, etc.) but also the neighboring countries. The disaster has not been fully controlled but has entered a “sub-acute” stage. Statements from TEPCO have included some estimate of 4 decades (the unit of estimate is decade not years, so it may simply go up by another decade or two) for a full de-commissioning of the troubled reactors and moving the melt-down nuclear fuel out of the facility.


However, the full de-commissioning in the “estimated” 4 decades from now is based on technology under development, and not currently existing or having been tested … This is while TEPCO has lost the confidence of the Japanese public as well as the IAEA in dealing with the day to day maintenance of cooling the nuclear fuel and keeping the contaminated water away from the natural environment. It can be said that the disaster is only in a “sub-acute” stage and the best we can hope for is to have an “increasing” level of transparency in the size of the ongoing drama of events.


The Partnership with Russia…


Japanese researchers have been actively involved in the follow-up of the Chernobyl disaster (by screening for thyroid cancer, many other studies, etc.) but the experience of Russia in containing the nuclear disaster “emergency” based on the “available technologies” at the time has not been used.


We know now that the rapid response of the administrators in the Soviet Union prevented from a much larger calamity from happening in the Chernobyl. This is while the Japanese showed a very slow response to the evolving disaster in the early days and if it was not for the “urgent” solution of pouring “seawater” on the buildings holding the nuclear fuel, by helicopters, a number of explosions might have caused the whole Tohoku area and some of the nearby regions to become un-inhabitable for centuries to come. So why not use the experience of Russia in practically dealing with the “sub-acute” problems, or at least asking for their consultation? Does Japan really have the convenient option of waiting for the needed technology to be developed in the next 40 years while every once in a while another earthquake happens in the area, and day to day maintenance of the cooling has already reached its limits?


Need for Substitute Energy


The regional energy resource solutions have not been seriously considered in the seeking of a solution for the energy crisis in Japan. This is an economic as well as a strategic issue for policy making in Japan. The Japanese need to seriously enhance the levels of cooperation, collaboration, and regional solidarity with their neighbors. To stop “us vs. them” thinking, they need to work together in “shared projects” that are regionally significant and challenging. There are great “potentials” that “rationally” speaking should have led to “actual” economic cooperation in the region; so we should ask ourselves, now, why they have not? The import of LNG from Russia as well as electricity in critical periods such as the period of checking the safety of the nuclear power reactors, when many of them, and maybe all, will go offline, are good examples.


At this stage, I suggest more serious exchange of views in “working groups” from all regional stakeholders.


Note: On August 25th, Japan’s foreign minister Kishida, as part of his trip to Ukraine, visited Chernobyl ( ). This may be a sign that the Japanese government is starting to pay attention to the Soviet Union’s, as well Ukraine’s and Russia’s, experience in dealing with a large-scale nuclear disaster.


Nader Ghotbi is Director, Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies (RCAPS), and Professor, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU).

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