The Nuclear Regulation Authority on July 8 will begin enforcing new safety standards at atomic power stations, more than two years after Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant experienced three reactor core meltdowns.
Hoping they become the world’s highest safety standards, the new rules reflect what regulators have learned from the Fukushima crisis, which was triggered by the March 11, 2011, mega-quake and monster tsunami.
Utilities are meanwhile hoping that the regulators will be lenient with reactor restarts as long as they agree to upgrade their plants to the new safety regime over time.
Following are questions and answers about the new nuclear plant safety rules and the review process:
How do the new rules differ from previous ones?
A major difference is that it will now be mandatory for utilities to install defenses that can prevent meltdowns from being caused by natural disasters — such as earthquakes, tsunami and tornadoes — as well as defenses against terrorist attacks.
The poorly maintained Fukushima No. 1 plant was among Tepco’s oldest and most neglected, in terms of design. When the 2011 mega-quake and tsunami hit, it lost all power and nearly all backup systems, making it impossible to cool the reactors or buy enough time to prevent the meltdowns.
Japan’s previous safety standards did not require nuclear utilities to prepare for such crises as station blackouts or meltdowns because the government and the power industry were in bed with each other. In fact, the idea that nuclear power is safe was so entrenched in government propaganda that no one seriously thought a nuclear catastrophe could occur.
This ill-preparedness meant Tepco was unable to prevent the meltdowns of reactors 1, 2 and 3 at Fukushima No. 1 from contaminating Japan and the sea.
“The foundation of the new safety rules is based on the premise that we can never again have another (disaster) like Fukushima,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka told a news conference June 19.
What are the specific measures that must be taken?
Structural reinforcement will take top priority, covering the control rooms, emergency power generators, reactor venting systems and seawalls, which were either nonexistent or too low to be effective against tsunami.
Filtered ventilation systems will become mandatory because they can lessen the release of radioactive materials should emergency venting become necessary. The Fukushima No. 1 plant was ripped apart by at least three hydrogen explosions, possibly because venting was either not used properly or failed to work.
If computer simulations show that atomic facilities are vulnerable to tsunami, seawalls that can withstand them must be built.
In addition, special secondary safety buildings must be built at a distance from the reactors so that operation and cooling can be conducted remotely without the buildings being destroyed or compromised by radiation.
Reactors are usually monitored from control rooms in the same buildings that house them, but a natural disaster or terrorist attack involving aircraft could cripple these facilities.
Utilities must fulfill all of the requirements except for the special secondary safety buildings, the filtered ventilation systems for pressurized water reactors, and third DC power supplies. These three items will be given a five-year moratorium to install.
Other key measures include increasing the number of emergency generators, water cannons and fireproofing cables at the plants.
Are there concerns about the new rules?
The Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy, an anti-nuclear group composed of experts, says the refit moratoriums are dangerous.
“The regulators should not take the utilities’ circumstances into consideration. It is only natural for the regulators to reject the utilities’ requests to restart their reactors until the special safety (features) are in place,” a statement released June 19 by the group said.
Other experts say the new safety rules focus too much on hardware rather than judgment, skills and training.
Tetsuo Sawada, a nuclear expert and an assistant professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, said that relying too much on hardware and equipment is a risky proposition.
“If the safety standards are focused too much on hardware, plant operators might think that all they have to do is prepare (the installations),” Sawada said, adding that this may keep them from improving their crisis-management skills.
“To prevent accidents, it is critical that engineers skillfully handle emergencies,” he said.
Sawada said the NRA should work more closely with the utilities to make sure the engineers’ skills are thoroughly assessed.
Which utilities will submit restart requests?
Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Kansai Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co. are expected to apply as soon as the new safety standards take effect.
Hokkaido Electric will submit requests for reactors 1, 2 and 3 at its Tomari plant.
Kepco will seek restarts for reactors 3 and 4 at its Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture.
Shikoku Electric will seek permission to restart reactor 3 at its Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture.
Kyushu Electric will ask to restart reactors 1 and 2 at its Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, and reactors 3 and 4 at its Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture.
How will the NRA vet the requests?
The NRA plans to have three teams in place to assess compliance with the new safety standards. Each will have about 80 people and basically focus on one reactor at a time.
NRA chief Tanaka has said screening times will depend on readiness at each plant but will likely take six months on average, which means it will have a hard time handling all the requests.
While Tanaka said he might add more teams, this will not be easy because special expertise is required for the task and manpower may elude.
Will screening be harder under the new safety standards?
Yes, because the utilities will have to spend heavily to upgrade their plants, Tanaka said it would not come as a surprise if they gave up on restarting some reactors.
The cost of upgrading all of the nuclear power plants is expected to exceed ¥1 trillion.
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