The Nuclear Regulation Authority has effectively given the safety clearance for restarting Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s idled Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture — the first under power plant safety standards updated a year ago.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reiterated that his administration will move to reactivate nuclear reactors that have passed NRA screening, and the power industry hopes that the decision will pave the way for getting back online many other nuclear power plants across Japan that were halted in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
However, the NRA’s nod covers only some technical aspects of nuclear power generation safety in this natural disaster-prone country. Blind faith in what the Abe administration has billed the world’s top-level plant safety standards could lead to a revival of the “safety myth” of nuclear power that was prevalent before the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Before restarting any idled plant, the government and the power industry need to stop and consider if they have, in fact, learned the crucial lessons of the Fukushima crisis.
The Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant in the city of Satsumasendai have been fast-tracked for NRA screening among the 19 reactors at 12 power plants across Japan that regional power companies have applied to restart.
The NRA will finalize its report on the Sendai plant after soliciting public comments for a month. It could be reactivated sometime after the fall, pending additional procedures and the consent of local governments hosting the plant.
Under the updated safety standards, power companies are obliged to take countermeasures against possible severe accidents such as reactor core meltdowns as well as terrorist attacks. They are required to ensure that their plants can withstand the strongest quakes and highest tsunami estimated for their locations, and make necessary reinforcements.
The new standards were introduced in light of the lessons learned from the Fukushima plant meltdowns caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami. The standards have been hailed repeatedly by the Abe administration as among the world’s toughest for nuclear power plants.
Still, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said the watchdog’s assessment does not guarantee safety at the Sendai plan; it shows only that the plant matches the updated standards. “The plant’s safety has improved to a certain extent, but this is not the goal,” Tanaka said, adding that Kyushu Electric needs to make further efforts to guard the plant against possible natural disasters whose severity can be exceptionally high in Japan. Questions linger about the validity of the new safety standards, which have been created even before the causes of the Fukushima meltdowns are fully identified.
Achieving absolute safety in nuclear power plants may be pie in the sky. But one of the lessons of Fukushima was that a catastrophic accident can take place because of a series of unforeseen events. What’s needed are efforts to minimize the risk of severe accidents through multiple layers of safeguards at the plants, and to ensure the safety of residents in areas that could be hit by radiation fallout in such disasters.
It won’t be until fiscal 2015 and 2016 at the earliest, respectively, that the Sendai plant will have an “important anti-seismic building” and a filter to remove radioactive substances from steam released in an accident.
Since the Fukushima disaster, municipalities around nuclear power plants across the country have been called on to prepare evacuation plans for residents within 30 km of the plants. However, nearly 40 percent of such municipalities have reportedly not come up with a plan, even as the power companies seek to restart the idled plants.
Creation of the evacuation plans have been left in the hands of local governments, with no NRA or central government oversight to help ensure that the plans are adequate.
Municipalities around Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant have already drawn up evacuation plans. However, local residents and experts charge that the plans are ineffective because they are often based on implausible scenarios. Last month, more than half the residents of Ichikikushikino, which borders the Sendai plant host city of Satsumasendai, signed a petition opposing restart of the plant, citing the lack of an adequate plan to safely evacuate local residents.
The Kagoshima Prefectural Government in May released an estimate that it would take roughly 29 hours, at most, for 90 percent of some 210,000 residents within 30 km of the Sendai plant to evacuate the area. But doubts were cast on the plausibility of the estimate, especially because it did not take into account the extra time that would be required for evacuating people in need of special care such as hospital inpatients and residents of welfare facilities.
Many such people died during the evacuation of areas around the Fukushima plant in 2011. Kagoshima Gov. Yuichiro Ito says the prefecture will create plans for the evacuation of hospital patients and care facility residents within 10 km of the Sendai plant, but that it would be difficult to prepare a realistic plan to evacuate all such people within the 30-km zone, given the much larger number of institutions and patients.
The Sendai plant is widely considered one of the most vulnerable to volcanic eruptions because of the concentration of calderas in the area. The NRA report said it judged as “appropriate” the assessment by Kyushu Electric — though questioned by many volcanologists — that the risk of a massive eruption that could affect the plant during its life span is “small enough.” The NRA says the power company will monitor crustal movements in the calderas for possible signs of an eruption, and take steps to halt the reactors and move out nuclear fuels — a process that would take years — when such signs emerge. NRA Chairman Tanaka admits that its screening was carried out in the absence of sufficient scientific knowledge on the subject of forecasting volcanic eruptions.
The power industry has its reasons to seek a quick restart of idled nuclear power plants. Since the Fukushima disaster put the nation’s nuclear power plants offline, utility firms have suffered huge losses due to the increased costs of imported fuel to run thermal power plants — costs that have also been passed on to consumers. For Kyushu Electric, which relied on nuclear energy to generate 40 percent of its power before 2011, a restart of the Sendai plant’s Nos. 1 and 2 reactors alone would save it ¥20 billion in fuel costs each month.
The NRA decision comes as a relief for Kyushu Electric and other power companies that hope more reactors will quickly get the go-ahead to restart. However, they and the Abe administration need to reconsider whether adequate steps have been taken to avoid a repeat of the mistakes that led to the Fukushima disaster — and to ensure that shortcuts to safety are not being taken in the drive to restart the idled plants.