The No. 3 reactor of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which was restarted in late January, is expected to start commercial operations in late February. Its No. 4 reactor is also set to be restarted around the same time. Although the Takahama Municipal Government and Fukui Prefecture gave their consent to the restart, there are serious concerns, including those expressed by nearby municipalities and their residents.
Following the restart of the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, Takahama unit 3 is the third reactor to come back online under the safety regulations introduced by the Nuclear Regulation Authority following the shutdown of the nation’s nuclear plants in the wake of the March 2011 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant. But it is the first to run on mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which contains not only uranium but also plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel. The No. 4 reactor at Takahama will also use MOX fuel.
Japan has accumulated 48 tons of plutonium — enough to make an estimated 6,000 nuclear bombs — as a result of the government’s nuclear fuel cycle policy, which aims to reprocess spent fuel to extract uranium and plutonium to be used again as fuel. The Takahama restart may help the government show its resolve to cut its plutonium stockpile to address U.S. concerns over nuclear proliferation. But the restart will pose a problem in the not-too-distant future. The spent fuel storage facilities for reactors 3 and 4 are expected to become filled in seven or eight years after they are reactivated. Spent uranium fuel from nuclear power plants is to be sent to a fuel reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, still on a trial run, but the plant cannot reprocess used MOX fuel — meaning that there will be no place to store overflowing spent fuel from the Takahama reactors. Although Kansai Electric aims to choose a site for a medium-term storage facility outside Fukui by around 2020, no prefectures seem willing to host it.
In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, local governments within 30 km of a nuclear power plant are now required to devise plans to evacuate their residents in the event of a major accident. In the case of Takahama, nearly 180,000 residents in 12 municipalities in Fukui, Kyoto and Shiga prefectures live in the 30-km zone. Part of the city of Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, is within 5 km of the Takahama plant. Despite this, Kansai Electric stuck to the position that to restart the reactors it only needs consent from the host town of Takahama and Fukui Prefecture, and it ignored calls from Kyoto and Shiga prefectures and many other municipalities within the 30-km zone that it should also gain their consent. The same situation happened when Kyushu Electric Power Co. pushed to restart the Sendai reactors. The power companies should address the concerns harbored by municipalities and residents that do not host plants but lie close enough to be affected by a nuclear disaster.
Despite the requirement for compiling evacuation plans, no evacuation drills with local residents have been carried out in the municipalities around Takahama and many residents have received no instructions on where they should evacuate to in the event of a severe accident. Maizuru, for example, won’t release a new evacuation plan for its residents until March. While there are plans to evacuate some Fukui residents to Hyogo, Kyoto and Tokushima prefectures, many municipalities are not ready to receive them. In addition, evacuations may not proceed as planned in extreme weather conditions such as heavy snow or when roads are congested. The Fukushima disaster also exposed the evacuation difficulties faced by inpatients at hospitals and elderly people in nursing care facilities. And as there are few access roads to the Takahama facility, the evacuation of plant workers and dispatch of emergency teams may be hindered. The Takahama facility is among 14 nuclear power plants concentrated by Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture. If a major disaster hits the plants simultaneously, the area will be highly vulnerable.
In December, the Fukui District Court quashed an injunction issued by the same court in April against restarting the Takahama reactors, paving the way for Kansai Electric to put them back online. Although the ruling upheld the NRA’s new safety standards for restarting reactors as rational and endorsed the authority’s decision that the Takahama reactors met the standards, both Kansai Electric and the NRA should not forget that the ruling also stated that the NRA’s decision does not rule out the possibility of a severe accident and that high-level efforts for safety must be constantly maintained because there is no such thing as absolute safety. Since it is believed that controlling a reactor that burns MOX fuel is more difficult than one that uses uranium, Kansai Electric cannot be too cautious in operating the Takahama plant.