Hakodate’s valid nuclear concern

The government and power companies should take seriously the legal action launched by Hakodate. Hokkaido’s third-largest city is seeking to halt construction of a nuclear power plant across the sea in Oma, Aomori Prefecture, on the grounds that it could be devastated in the event of a severe accident at the plant even though it has no say in its launch or operation.

In the first such action by a municipality in Japan, the Hakodate city government filed the lawsuit on April 3 with the Tokyo District Court to stop the project by Electric Power Development Co. (J-Power) to build a new plant that would run entirely on plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel.

The plant site near the tip of the Shimokita Peninsula is just 23 km away from the southern Hokkaido city across the Tsugaru Strait — a distance small enough that one coast can be seen from the other on a clear day. Hakodate Mayor Toshiki Kudo says the city’s fisheries and tourism industries would be severely affected if the Oma plant, the world’s first of its kind, is hit by a severe accident, especially given the planned use of MOX fuel.

Government approval for construction of the Oma plant was granted in 2008 and it was about 40 percent complete when work was suspended in the wake of the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Construction resumed in October 2012, and J-Power has said that it plans to apply as early as this fall for the screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority under the new safety guidelines.

Power companies conclude safety agreements with municipalities and prefectures that host their nuclear power plants, under which the utilities seek local governments’ approval when new reactors and related facilities are built, and customarily ask for their consent when the plants are restarted after suspended operation. However, neighboring municipalities that could similarly be affected by accidents have no say in such matters.

The Fukushima disaster made it clear that the radiation fallout in the event of severe accidents could affect wide areas. Five towns and villages around the host municipalities of the crippled Tepco plant were forced to evacuate when the nuclear disaster unfolded. Under a new government guideline, municipalities within a radius of 30 km of a nuclear power plant — instead of 10 km before the disaster — are required to develop evacuation contingency plans to be implemented in the event of a severe accident.

Hakodate is far from alone in its concerns about the far-reaching effects of nuclear accidents. As the Abe administration prepares to give a go-ahead for restarting several nuclear reactors once they have cleared NRA’s ongoing safety screening, some municipalities around power plants are calling on utilities to come up with similar safety agreements. However, power companies are reluctant because that would expand the scope of parties whose consent would be needed for their nuclear power plant operations.

The Oma plant case will now be in the hands of the judiciary. But the government and the nation’s power companies must not dismiss the legitimate concerns by municipalities, including Hakodate and their residents, who could be directly impacted by nuclear power plant accidents but have no say in their operations.