OSAKA - The Fukushima No. 1 power plant’s continued pollution of the Pacific is fueling growing domestic and international concern about radiation hazards, clouding plans by utilities and the government to quickly restart a dozen reactors.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s decision to raise the severity assessment of a tank leak Wednesday to level 3 (“serious incident”) on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event scale comes over a month after Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted radioactive groundwater under crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant is flowing to the Pacific Ocean, and six weeks after applications were filed to restart reactors in Hokkaido, Fukui, Ehime, Saga, and Fukui prefectures under new safety standards.
But there is something of an east-west divide among regional governments as to the wisdom of restarting the reactors. On Wednesday, Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato called on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to declare a national state of emergency over the water leaks.
“Under the recognition that this is a declared national emergency, the government should respond in a concerted effort, and with a sense of urgency,” Sato told Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi.
In Niigata Prefecture, home to Tepco’s giant seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex, plans to apply for restarting two of the reactors ran into problems even before the most recent water leak, when the governor signaled he was opposed.
“Now is not the time to talk about restarting the reactors, because the investigation into the causes of the Fukushima accident is not finished” Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida warned last week.
In western Japan, the political rhetoric is different.
In Fukui Prefecture, which has 13 commercial reactors, the local townships hosting them, as well as Gov. Issei Nishikawa, are continuing to lobby hard to get them up and running again. Nishikawa has been especially critical of the way the NRA examined the prefecture’s plants.
“For no logical reason, the NRA has delayed plant safety inspections” on the new safety standards, Nishikawa said.
The staunchly pro-nuclear Fukui governor has met with senior Abe administration officials twice since June. He called on the government to create a separate body to monitor the operations of the NRA and to make recommendations for improving its operations.
In a passage that came almost verbatim from previous statements by Kansai Electric Power Co., he also asked that a new body of experts be hired to come to a “fair and impartial” scientific conclusion about the fault lines under Fukui’s reactors, which were judged active in the case of the Tsuruga plant’s reactor 2.
In June, reactors 3 and 4 at Kepco’s Oi power plant — currently the only two online in Japan — were allowed to continue operating until they have to halt for regular inspections in September, after the NRA said there were no immediate safety problems.
In Saga Prefecture, Kyushu Electric Power Co. is pushing to restart the reactors 3 and 4 at the Genkai power plant. But the Fukushima water leak has magnified the concerns of local fisherman, and about 20 members of a fisherman’s union in neighboring Nagasaki Prefecture last week agreed to protest the effort.
Local opposition, however, isn’t as strong as it is in other parts of the country, and there is speculation among anti-nuclear groups that the Genkai reactors will be the first restarted under the new safety guidelines.
In Ikata, Ehime Prefecture, where Shikoku Electric Power Co. officials are moving forward with plans to start the Ikata plant’s reactor 3, company officials went door to door earlier this week visiting homeowners and small businesses to explain the safety policy for the plant, also encountering little opposition.
But the questions of if, when and where reactors should be restarted is likely to rely not only on local politics, but also available personnel.
Earlier this month, the NRA took out a help-wanted ad in a utility industry newspaper, seeking 20 people with experience working in nuclear power to help judge whether reactors targeted for restarts meet its new safety standards, which took effect in July.
At present, about 80 people are employed in such work. The NRA wants the new employees to begin in October. Given the amount of work and the number of applications, doubts remain about whether even 100 additional inspectors would speed up the process.