Saturday, March 25, 2000
The Fukui District Court dismissed a suit filed by residents of the city of Tsuruga seeking the permanent closure of the Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor. The Monju reactor, which has been shut down since December 1995, is owned by the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute.
Presiding Judge Yoshihiko Iwata upheld the government's various positions regarding this reactor. He asserted that the Nuclear Power Safety Commission's safety investigation was appropriate, that the sodium coolant leakage that occurred five years ago ought not to be considered evidence of a major flaw, and that the reactor does not pose a threat to the lives and health of local residents when it is in operation.
But this ruling raises a number of red flags. It paid almost no attention to the fact that the Monju fast-breeder reactor consumes plutonium and therefore has special characteristics. Instead, it hailed Monju's effectiveness as a source of electric power and held that the reactor "does not exceed standards" that would threaten human life and health. But it fails to specify what "socially acceptable standards" ought to be for such reactors.
Furthermore, the ruling paved the way for the reopening of the Monju reactor provided remedial measures are taken by the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute. However, the ruling does not acknowledge that the reliability of the remedial measures and safety policies have been called into question. It also failed to scrutinize the data of recent surveys conducted by the Science and Technology Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission.
Plaintiffs have never won a lawsuit against the nuclear power industry. Nonetheless, recent court decisions have taken an increasingly critical view of nuclear power. In a February 1999 ruling, the Sapporo District Court ruled in a case related to a reactor owned by Hokkaido Electric Power that it did not have the ability to determine whether nuclear power was absolutely safe, but acknowledged that reducing electricity consumption and closing nuclear reactors which produce radioactive waste ought to be retained as an option.
However, Wednesday's verdict by the Fukui court did not acknowledge that the public has grown increasingly concerned about the safety of nuclear power in light of recent accidents at Tokaimura and other nuclear facilities. The ruling reveals the court's limitations in judging matters which require a high level of technical understanding and over which experts can disagree. The nation needs a judicial system that will allow professional expertise to be fairly incorporated into lawsuits not only in nuclear power cases but also in medical malpractice suits and patent suits.
The technology used in the Monju reactor is difficult and uneconomic. Many foreign countries have abandoned their fast-breeder reactor programs and we have been urging the government to reconsider its plutonium reactor program and to devote its utmost efforts to securing the safety of the reactors that are currently in operation. We hope that the government and the electric power industry will realize that they still have a long way to go to make nuclear power safe, this most recent court ruling notwithstanding.
From the Mainichi Shimbun, March 23