With New Safety Measures, Nuclear Reactors May Reopen In Japan

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Three years after the Fukushima disaster shut Japan's nuclear power plants, reactors at a different plant may reopen. Steve Inskeep talks with Wall Street Journal Tokyo bureau chief Peter Landers.


Japan is close to reopening one of its nuclear power plants. Every nuclear reactor in the country shut down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, even the ones that were not damaged in any way. Now authorities have said that one power plant, which has two reactors, complies with new, stricter government safeguards. That clears the plans to heat up. Peter Landers of the Wall Street Journal is covering the story from Tokyo.

PETER LANDERS: These are two reactors at a plant in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and they're offline at the moment. We have made significant safety improvements, I would say, since the Fukushima disaster. They've raised their barrier against tsunami. They've strengthened the building against any possible earthquake. So the question is, is it a one-in-a-thousand or one-in-a-million chance that there could be an accident like Fukushima again? It's hard to say.

INSKEEP: So does this suggest the real question Japan is facing is should we have nuclear power at all?

LANDERS: Most people are not saying that they want to see an immediate and permanent halt to all nuclear reactors. But they are cautious about reopening them now. They wonder whether the evacuation plans are fully in place. They're not sure they trust the government, the electric power companies. So it's a politically sensitive choice.

INSKEEP: How loud has the public been in this debate?

LANDERS: There are some towns that are near these two reactors in Kyushu that have said they oppose the reopening. It's interesting that the town itself that is hosting the reactors is basically in favor of reopening because of the jobs that they would bring. But the towns that are nearby see less of an economic boost. But they feel that if there were ever an accident, they would suffer equal consequences. They might have to be evacuated permanently, like towns that were near Fukushima Daiichi.

INSKEEP: Are there people making the argument that nuclear power cannot be 100 percent safe? And that Japan's needs to accept every so often - every 20 years, every 30 years, nobody really knows how often - there will be some nuclear disaster, but that they believe it's worth it.

LANDERS: Even the supporters don't quite want to make that argument. I don't hear supporters of nuclear power saying, we'll just have to accept an accident every once in a while. What you hear from some business leaders or some political leaders is, we want the prime minister to step up and give a speech, promising that nuclear reactors are safe. And the prime minister is a little hesitant to do that, because it's politically unpopular and also because, as you say, there's nothing in this world that is perfectly 100 percent safe.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you wouldn't want to have that videotape lying around, not knowing what might happen in the future.

LANDERS: Exactly and another point that the government has made is that after the Fukushima accident, a new independent nuclear regulatory authority was created in Japan. And that is the authority that has said these two reactors are safe. So in a sense, according to government spokesman, there's no need for the prime minister to make any speech of that nature. The regulator, independently, has come to the conclusion that these reactors meet the new safety standards. Now, the regulator takes a different position saying that, we merely judge adherence to the standards and it's for others to decide whether that is safe enough.

INSKEEP: Woah, wait a minute. You're saying that no one in authority is actually willing to say the reactor is safe, even as it is sort of being declared safe.

LANDERS: Exactly. There is no Harry Truman saying, the buck stops here.

INSKEEP: Peter Landers of the Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

LANDERS: Thank you.

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