The Fukui District Court’s ruling this week that it will not allow the restart of two nuclear power reactors run by Kansai Electric Power Co. challenges the Abe administration’s energy policy of keeping nuclear power as a key source of the nation’s electricity supply despite the safety risks that materialized in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011.
The court’s Wednesday ruling was on a lawsuit filed by a group of 189 people from Tokyo, Fukui and other prefectures against the 2012 restart of two of the reactors at Kepco’s Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Oi, Fukui Prefecture.
The two Oi reactors — the first to have been reactivated after all of the nation’s nuclear reactors were shut down following the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant — were taken offline last year for regular maintenance, leaving the nation again without nuclear power.
The content of the court’s ruling, in effect, questions the plans by power firms and the government to restart more than a dozen nuclear reactors around the country just three years after the disaster in Fukushima, where roughly 130,000 local residents remain displaced from their homes due to the effects of radiation fallout and Tepco continues to struggle to cope with the aftermath of the reactor core meltdowns caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami.
The district court said the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi plant have “structural deficiencies” in their safety measures against severe earthquakes, and determined that restarting their operation would violate the fundamental rights to life of plaintiffs who live within 250 km of the plant — the maximum range where the effects of a worst-case nuclear power plant disaster are estimated to spread in simulations based on the Fukushima case.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in reversing the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administration’s nuclear phaseout policy, has emphasized the economic viability and supply stability of nuclear energy. He has repeatedly dismissed the no-nuclear option in Japan’s energy mix as unrealistic, noting that the nation is losing trillions of yen each year due to the increased cost of fuel imports to run thermal power generators to make up for the shutdown of nuclear power plants.
The ruling dismissed a similar argument by Kepco in court, noting that it is legally irrelevant to discuss people’s fundamental rights to life on the same level as the question of rising costs of generating electricity.
It went on to say that even if Japan suffers large trade deficits because of the nuclear power plant shutdowns, the real loss of national wealth is when people become unable to live stable lives on their land — an apparent reference to the shattered lives of those residents around the Fukushima plant who were forced to flee their homes. The court also called the radiation fallout from the Fukushima disaster “the worst environmental contamination” in Japan’s history and brushed aside as completely missing the point the argument that the nation needs to have nuclear power as a clean energy that reduces emissions of global warming gases.
One of the key points of the ruling is that operation of the Oi reactors needs to be stopped if there is “even a slightest chance” that the reactors’ ability to keep cooling their cores and contain radioactivity could be lost — as happened in the case of the Fukushima No. 1 plant — if the plant is crippled by severe earthquakes.
The crucial point of the ruling is its contention that it is inherently impossible to determine on scientific grounds that an earthquake more powerful than assumed in the operator’s worst-case scenario would not happen. It noted that since 2005, four nuclear power reactors around the country have experienced quake shocks more powerful than the maximum level anticipated on their sites. It is “groundless optimism” in this quake-prone country that such a temblor would never hit the Oi plant, the ruling stated.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government last year introduced what it calls the world’s toughest safety standards on nuclear power plants, which obliges utilities to put in place specific countermeasures against severe accidents such as earthquakes and tsunamis. So far, nine power companies have applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for safety screening of their plans to restart 18 reactors at 11 nuclear power plants around the country.
The power companies have invested heavily in additional safety features at their nuclear power plants to meet the updated standards. The cost of imported fuel due to the nuclear shutdowns has weighed heavily on their earnings, with six of the nation’s 10 power firms reporting pretax losses for the year that ended in March. The costs have been passed on to electricity rates, and the utilities warn that they will have to raise the rates even higher if they remain unable much longer to restart the nuclear reactors.
Kepco has applied for NRA screening of its plans to restart the Nos. 3 and 4 Oi reactors. The company has appealed Wednesday’s ruling to a higher court, and until the ruling is finalized, the utility will be legally able to reactivate the Oi reactors once it gets the go-ahead from the NRA and relevant government authorities.
Officials say the district court ruling will not affect what they are doing. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga says the government has no plans to change its policy of seeking the restart of reactors that have cleared the NRA’s screenings, with the consent of host municipalities.
NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka has also said the regulation authority will “continue our own examination of the Oi plant” based on the new safety standards.
The Abe administration and the power companies need to stop and reflect on the Fukui court ruling in the context of what the events of the Fukushima disaster. The core meltdowns at Tepco’s Fukushima plant took place after the operator deliberately underestimated tsunami risks and failed to take necessary precautions. When it hit, Tepco sought to excuse its lack of preparedness by characterizing the tsunami as simply beyond the scope of “conventional assumptions.”
What the ruling called the “groundless optimism” about safety of the Oi plant can be a malady common to all nuclear power plants in this country. The “safety myth” in nuclear power was shattered in the Fukushima disaster. Such a myth should not be resurrected.