Tepco's Kashiwazaki nuclear plant safer after upgrades, inspectors say

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant has become safer in terms of physical hardware, while plant workers appear to be improving their emergency-response skills, overseas experts who inspected the facility Thursday said.

Members of a Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, which is keeping a watch on Tokyo Electric Power Co., visited the Kashiwazaki plant for the first time to check whether the utility had made progress on safety. It is the world’s largest nuclear power plant, housing seven reactors.

“From what we’ve seen with the physical improvements, I believe the plant is much safer than it has been in the past,” said Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who heads the monitoring committee.

All the reactors at the plant, located in the city of Kashiwazaki in Niigata Prefecture, are currently idle.

Tepco has applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for safety checks on reactors No. 6 and No. 7.

It is still unclear when the nuclear watchdog will finish its inspections and make a decision on whether the plant meets new safety standards drafted after the Fukushima accident triggered by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

The new standards require structural reinforcement to withstand natural disasters, such as seawalls, an extra complex to remotely cool reactors and a new ventilation system that will filter and reduce radioactive particles in the event that gas needs to be released from the reactors if internal pressure rises to a dangerously high level.

The number of emergency generators, water cannons and fireproofing cables at the plants also must be increased.

As part of the tour, inspectors viewed upgrades such as a 10-meter wall to block tsunami, and watertight modifications to walls, doors and pipes in critical facilities such as reactor buildings. Tepco also showed a new 20,000-ton water reservoir that can be used to cool fuel rods and demonstrated a water cannon device that can shoot as high as 50 meters and far as 100 meters.

“I think from the community perspective, they should have high confidence that proper physical protections have now been taken,” said Klein.

The committee members also got to see a disaster simulation drill in which the utility randomly picked an accident scenario to see how workers coped with it.

Klein stressed the importance of training, saying that the committee is focusing on the “people’s issues.”

“Do they have a good safety culture? Are they asking the right questions? Are they properly trained? Are they responsive?”

“We will continue to monitor this, but so far we’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen,” Klein said.