Trade Pact Progress, Nuclear Plant Faultfinding

Shiraishi Takashi [Profile]

[2013.03.06] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | االعربية |

TPP: A Test of Abe’s Leadership

On February 22, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō met in Washington with President Barack Obama, and the Japanese and US governments issued a joint statement concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. This statement confirmed that if Japan were to participate, “all goods would be subject to negotiation,” but noting that “both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities” and that “as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations.”

As part of its campaign platform for the general election last December, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party declared that it was “opposed to participation in TPP negotiations as long as this is predicated on elimination of tariffs without sanctuary [without exceptions].” The January 22 joint statement paves the way for the Abe administration to claim that this condition has been cleared and to announce Japan’s intention to participate in the TPP talks. Inasmuch as the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of multilateral negotiations has stalled, Japan really has no choice but to participate in these TPP talks, which will shape the rules for a broad free trade area in the Asia-Pacific region. So this is a welcome development.

As noted in the joint statement, the negotiations may lead to the adoption of exceptions for certain sensitive items. But just because the talks are not “predicated on elimination of tariffs without sanctuary,” that does not mean that it is acceptable for the final agreement to exclude all sorts of items. The purpose of the TPP is to create a high-standard agreement for regional free trade with as few exceptions as possible. I hope Prime Minister Abe will exert further leadership to achieve this goal.

Nuclear Power Plants: Unreasonable Standards for Reactivation?

On January 28, an expert team of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority issued a statement concerning its investigation of a fracture zone in the site of the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Station in Fukui Prefecture. The team noted that a newly discovered fault directly under one of the reactors might well be active, and that if it were to experience seismic activity at the same time as a previously confirmed active fault within the same site, it could affect key facilities at the plant. And on February 18, another expert team gave its general approval to a draft report citing a similar possibility of an active fault in the site of the Higashidōri Nuclear Power Station in Aomori Prefecture. As a result, the prospects for reactivation of these currently idled nuclear plants have receded.

I do not mean to question the judgment of the expert teams, both of which indicated that they “could not exclude the possibility” of active faults existing within the sites of the plants in question. But I do question the idea of revising the existing regulatory guidelines in such a way as to reject the operation of any reactors or other nuclear power facilities located above active faults. 

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that revision of the regulatory guidelines is unnecessary. With respect to the location of nuclear power plant facilities above active seismic faults, the government’s existing position allows broad discretionary leeway, as set forth in its response to questioning in the House of Councillors in 2008. At that time the government declared, “The fact that a nuclear power generation facility is located ‘above an active fault’ alone does not mean that it fails to meet the siting guidelines. With respect to the safety of nuclear power generation facilities in the event of earthquakes, judgment is to be made after having stringently assessed the impact of the active fault on the facility and what sort of earthquake-resistant design is to be undertaken based on standards including the new guidelines on earthquake resistance.”

This policy stance will not pass muster with the general public in Japan now that we have experienced the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. In that respect, it is quite understandable that last November the Nuclear Regulation Authority launched a review of the siting guidelines, deciding to make them stricter, bring them in line with more stringent international standards, and apply them not just to new nuclear power plants but also to existing facilities. 

The problem is the proposed content of the revised guidelines. According to the tentative outline of new safety standards concerning earthquakes and tsunamis that the NRA released on February 6, “Facilities that have important safety functions are to be located on ground that has been confirmed not to have outcroppings of faults with the possibility of future [seismic] activity.” The tentative standards define “faults with the possibility of future activity” as “ones for which it is not possible to deny activity [i.e., to confirm that no activity has occurred] since the late Pleistocene” (120,000–130,000 years ago). Furthermore, the NRA refers to cases in which the lack of multiple topographical surfaces or continuous faults makes it impossible to make a clear determination regarding this criterion, proposing that the active status of faults in such cases be assessed on the basis of comprehensive consideration of topographical features and geological structures and stress fields going back as far as the middle Pleistocene (some 400,000 years ago).

Homo sapiens is generally thought to have appeared on the earth 140,000–200,000 years ago. And the history of human civilization goes back 5,000–6,000 years, dating from around 3,500 BC in Mesopotamia and 3,000 BC in Egypt. Himiko, the ancient Japanese queen mentioned in the Chinese Records of Three Kingdoms, would have lived in the mid-third century, or about 1,750 years ago. So what the NRA is proposing is that no nuclear power plant may be constructed—or, if already constructed, allowed to be put back in operation—on the site of any geological stratum that may have experienced seismic activity of any scale at any time since the birth of the human race, including the many millennia before the start of recorded history. Is this a rational policy for our country to adopt? That is what I question.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 25, 2013.)

Related articles
Other columns
  • [2013.03.06]

Received his PhD in history from Cornell University. Is now president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and president of the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization. He was an executive member of the Cabinet Office's Council for Science and Technology Policy from January 2009 to January 2013. His works include Teikoku to sono genkai (Empire and Its Limits) and Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism (coeditor). Former editor in chief and currently senior editor of Nippon.com.

Video highlights

バナーエリア2
  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news