Japan on Monday ushered in what regulators call the world’s toughest safety standards for atomic power plants, determined to prevent another disaster like the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 complex.
But the Nuclear Regulation Authority, power utilities and the government still have much to do to reassure the public that the country is now ready to shift back into high gear and bring its idled reactors back online.
Under the new standards, reactors will be equipped with dozens of additional functions that hadn’t been required in the past to deal with various situations, including reactor core meltdowns, tsunami hazards and acts of terrorism.
“We have worked to create the world’s toughest regulatory standards . . . and I think we have been able to make something close to what we have aimed at,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka told reporters after the new safety requirements were finalized on June 19.
But when it comes to enforcing the regulations, doubts linger as to whether the NRA, a fledgling entity launched last September, has sufficient manpower and capabilities to carry out stringent safety assessments of reactors at a time when utilities are lining up to get their facilities checked as quickly as possible.
Whereas the NRA has readied three teams consisting of around 80 people in total, including staff from its technical support organization, the reactors in line for safety examinations totaled 10 on Monday. More applications are expected.
An NRA official did not mention how many reactors the teams can concurrently handle and said the agency has no choice but to “do its best” with its current manpower.
Each assessment process could take at least around six months, and regulators are likely to be put to the test as they confront nuclear power plant operators that may be looking for chances to water down the regulations.
Tanaka said the NRA is different from the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which was criticized as lacking teeth since it was overseen by the same ministry responsible for promoting nuclear power, stressing that the new agency’s independence is legally guaranteed.
But he admitted that the staff, many of whom come from NISA, will have to strive to improve their expertise to conduct strict safety assessments, while adding that he also wants to see a change in the mindset of the plant operators toward safety.
During a recently ended process to check whether the country’s only two online reactors have no serious problems under the new regulations, the NRA expressed disappointment with the behavior of Kansai Electric Power Co.
“The operator looked as if it was trying to find the minimum line for meeting the safety standards. . . . I personally don’t think the company will receive a passing mark in terms of awareness of safety goals,” one of the five NRA commissioners, Kayoko Nakamura, said.
According to the NRA, one of the major challenges in Japan is to nurture a safety culture — but there is apparently no quick remedy.
“It may take quite a long time, but we hope to make efforts on a daily basis because it will be difficult to secure safety in a real sense unless society, including operators, has such an awareness,” Tanaka said at a separate press conference earlier in the month.
Once reactors are confirmed to be satisfying the new regulations, obtaining local consent will hold the key to actually bring the units back online.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has said it will “do its utmost” to secure the approval of local governments hosting the facilities and other stakeholders to restart reactors that are confirmed safe enough.
But how utilities will get the final go-ahead for the restart of reactors is vague, leaving room for confusion as local governments are reluctant to take all the responsibility for making a decision on the sensitive issue.
An official from Ehime Prefecture, which hosts a reactor that could pass the NRA’s safety review at an early date, said, “Prospects are unpredictable because the government has not shown how it will decide on the restart of reactors that have passed the examination.”
While lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party from electoral districts hosting atomic power plants have expressed hope that reactors will be restarted quickly, Taro Kono, a rare antinuclear figure inside the LDP, warned during a meeting of lawmakers: “Restarting reactors will not be so easy. Winning the approval of local people will probably take quite a long time.”