‘Stress tests’ to be done in two stages

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

The government announced a new safety assessment plan for nuclear power plants Monday, making it precondition that reactors undergoing check-ups to pass the first stage of the so-called stress test before restarting them.

With the two-staged tests to push back the resumption of reactors, Japan could face even more serious lack of electricity this summer.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced the plan during a news conference Monday, but he gave no specific timeline as to when the tests would actually start and for how long it would last.

Edano explained that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has been checking the idled reactors more carefully since the March 11 deadly earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

But the government decided that a new safety evaluation system was necessary amid strong public distrust, Edano said.

NISA is placed under the jurisdiction of the industry ministry which promotes nuclear power and experts have pointed out the need for their independence. “There have been many voices questioning whether the safety checkups by NISA… was enough and we have not been able to seek the understanding of the people and the local residents,” Edano said.

The new assessment “aims to improve the safety of the nuclear power plants as well as to secure the safety and trust of the people and the residents,” he said.

Under the new framework, which referred to the stress tests being conducted in the European Union, the reactors would be checked not only by NISA but also the third-party Nuclear Safety Commission.

In the first stage, idled reactors undergoing regular inspections would be tested on how much it can endure in a “phenomenon that exceeds presumed” situations including massive earthquakes and tsunami.

In the second stage, a more comprehensive stress test will also be held on all active nuclear reactors in Japan to determine whether or not to continue their use. Both the evaluations of the first and second stress tests conducted by utilities would then be double-checked by NISA and NSC.

Edano also said that NISA would compile the details of the initial evaluation within a few days, but he refused to elaborate further, including when the tests would begin, saying that it was up to the NSC.

“Ideally, the tests would begin as soon as possible, but… it is meaningful because the third-party NSC is independent and will firmly confirm (their safety) and it would become pointless if we say when the conclusion needs to be made,” Edano said.

Meanwhile, Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan said on Sunday that Japan’s new assessment should be conducted faster than that of the EU, which is set to take about 7 months until the final report is made.

Edano expressed confidence that Japan would not reach a situation in which all 54 of the reactors in Japan would be stopped. Currently 35 are not in operation. “Of course, ultimately, their technical safety must be confirmed… but as long as that is secured, I don’t think we need to worry about the process leading to” the shutdown of all 54 reactors, Edano said.

At the end of June, industry minister Banri Kaieda said reactors undergoing regular checkups cleared the safety criteria and asked local governments to reactivate them.

Following his request, Genkai Mayor Hideo Kishimoto gave the green light for the No. 2 and 3 reactors at the Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture.

But Prime Minister Naoto Kan then suddenly ordered stress tests on all reactors, triggering confusion and anger among the locals. “We must earnestly reflect on the fact that we caused concern and inconvenience to the people of Saga Prefecture and Genkai Town but we are planning to move forward step by step,” Edano said.