The Fukui District Court’s injunction issued this week against restarting the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant again raises the question of who can guarantee the safety of nuclear power plants and how — an issue that the Abe administration seems to be keeping in the dark as it seeks to reactivate idled reactors that meet what it touts as the world’s toughest safety standard.
The court on Tuesday dismissed the standard adopted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in 2013 in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster as “too lax” and “lacking in rationality” and said that it cannot approve restarting reactors that have cleared the NRA’s screening under its guideline. This is a challenge to the administration’s policy of relying on the NRA’s endorsement as the green light for resuming operation of idled reactors. Kansai Electric was given the NRA’s nod in February to restart the Takahama reactors — only the second case among the nation’s nuclear plants following Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. But the injunction, which took effect immediately, puts the restart on hold until it’s reversed by a higher court.
In the court ruling, presiding Judge Hideaki Higuchi said the safety requirements of nuclear power plants must be rigorous enough to eliminate any chance of a serious disaster. The NRA has required power companies seeking approval of restarting their reactors to raise the intensity of the assumed maximum possible temblor that could hit in and around the plant site based on the area’s geological structure — which serves as the basis for the quake-resistant designs of the plants. Kansai Electric has told the court that the Takahama plant, which meets the NRA’s requirement, is secure enough against major disasters.
The Fukui court, however, pointed out that over the past decade, four nuclear power plant sites across Japan were hit by five temblors that exceeded the maximum level anticipated by the plants’ operators. It would be groundless optimism to believe that the Takahama plant site alone would not be hit by a quake stronger than the assumed level, which could cripple its cooling system and possibly damage the reactor cores, the court stated in its ruling. Such a risk would not be eliminated, the court said, unless the assumed quake level was more substantially upgraded and the plant’s quake-resistant features were fundamentally beefed up.
In May last year, Judge Higuchi handed down another Fukui court ruling that banned the restart of idled reactors — that time at the Oi plant also run by Kansai Electric on the Fukui coastline. Given that the only two court rulings against the operation of nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster were made by the same judge in the same court, his decisions have not escaped criticism. Some experts have pointed to what they called the court’s misunderstanding of the technical aspects of the power plants. Others have said the judge is essentially calling for 100 percent safety of nuclear power and zero tolerance against associated risk, which would make it impossible to run nuclear plants in a country prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
In response to the Fukui court’s decision, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government stands by the NRA’s decision and it would not change its position to seek the restart of nuclear reactors based on the NRA’s endorsements. Kansai Electric, which was planning to restart the Takahama reactors as early as November after obtaining consent of local authorities, said it would appeal the injunction to a higher court.
But aren’t the administration and the power companies reverting to the safety myth of nuclear power — which permeated the government and the power industry up until the Fukushima nuclear crisis — by repeating their faith in the safety standard set by the NRA and dismissing any challenge to its validity?
The experience of the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, has shown that the unthinkable can happen. And when it happens in a nuclear facility, the result can be far-reaching and long-term damage. More than four years after the disaster, Tepco and the government are still struggling to clean up the mess at the crippled plant, while nearly 120,000 Fukushima residents remain displaced both in and outside the prefecture due to the effects of the radiation fallout.
NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka himself reiterates that its standard does not eliminate the safety risk of nuclear power plants, and that its screening is only meant to see if the plants meet the updated safety guideline. The Abe administration repeats that it is following the NRA’s judgment in promoting the restart of idled reactors. Meanwhile, a majority of people in media opinion polls continue to oppose the restart of reactors, a stance that reflects their safety concerns over nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.
The government and power companies should not dismiss the Fukui court injunction as an aberrant decision by a lower court, but instead take it as a cue to reflect on whether they have sufficiently addressed people’s safety concerns and various questions raised about the reactor restarts. If legitimate questions exist about the NRA’s nuclear plant safety standard, they should be addressed.