Security at France’s 58 nuclear power plants was purportedly raised to its highest level last month as a result of the terrorist attacks in Paris, stoking concern over the safety of Japan’s nuclear facilities.
After the triple meltdown in Fukushima in 2011, Japan shut down all 48 of its viable commercial reactors in light of the crisis. But attempts are now being made to bring many back online.
And despite opposition from anti-nuclear activists and groups, two reactors in Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, were restarted this fall and summer, with applications for 26 more pending Nuclear Regulation Authority approval.
“I can understand there are concerns after terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris,” said NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka at a news conference on Nov. 18. “For now, we will tighten security measures by asking (for the) cooperation of related organizations like the police,” he said.
But the NRA’s recent decision to revise its requirements to cope with terrorism has fueled fears over potential attacks on Japanese plants.
The NRA’s new safety rules, introduced in July 2013 based on lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis, gave nuclear plant operators five years to set up special backup facilities to cope with possible attacks.
The rules require the building of emergency backup operation rooms, backup water pumps and multiple water intake channels leading to reactor cores. If terrorists managed to cut power and paralyze the critical functions that keep the fuel rods cool, it could cause a meltdown and release a vast amount of radioactive material — just like when tsunami knocked out the cooling system of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, triggering meltdowns at three of the six reactors there.
But at its Nov. 13 session, the NRA delayed the starting date of the five-year period, giving utilities extra time to make the deadline.
The time by which Kyushu Electric Power Co. has to build backup facilities for its two reactors recently reactivated at the Sendai nuclear plant, for example, was extended nearly two years to March 2020.
Anti-nuclear activists argue that preparations to counter potential attacks should start immediately, particularly since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration recently enacted a law that allows the Self-Defense Forces to feasibly take part in military operations with the United States.
“The terrorist threat to Japan has increased more than ever because of the (legalization of using the) right to collective self-defense,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-representative of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo.
Experts on the Middle East say the law makes Japan more visible to terrorists like the Islamic State group, which is believed to be targeting U.S. allies.
“The Islamic State has warned the pagan nation of Japan against further endangering lives of Japan’s citizens through Japanese support of the American crusade,” the jihadi extremist group said in the latest issue of its English-language online magazine Dabiq.
“Prior to Shinzo Abe’s thoughtless pledge of support for this crusade, Japan was not on the list of priorities to be targeted by the Islamic State,” the group said.
Even before the Fukushima crisis, the U.S. expressed serious concern over the apparent lack of security at Japanese nuclear plants.
In May 2011, the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks released a number of documents it claimed were cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to Washington in 2006 and 2007.
In one cable dated Feb. 26, 2007, the U.S. expressed concerns by reporting “armed national police are present at certain nuclear power plants . . . in Japan, but they do not guard all facilities and contract civilian guards are prevented by law from carrying weapons.”
Another cable, dated Nov. 2, 2006, referred to an anti-terrorism drill held at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. It reported that some Japanese officials “pointed out flaws in the drill, saying it was unrealistic because participants had advance copies of the scenario.”
Kevin Maher, who served as the minister-counselor for science and technologies and environmental affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, was among the U.S. officials surprised to learn of the apparent lack of armed security guards at Japanese nuclear plants.
In a 2003 meeting in Tokyo, Maher said he and a visiting White House official at the time urged senior officials at Japan’s now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to deploy armed guards to tighten security.
“We were explaining that you need to be prepared for an armed terrorist attack,” Maher said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “Literally their answer was, ‘No, because guns are illegal in Japan,’ ” he added.
Maher, however, stressed he now believes Japanese security measures at nuclear plants have been greatly strengthened under the NRA’s new safety standards and the more realistic crisis-management approach taken by the Abe administration.
Maher asserted that nuclear plants are now more tightly protected and there are many other “softer” targets in Japan that would be easier for terrorists to assault, such as those attacked in Paris last month.
“I think there are other targets that terrorists would probably aim for rather than nuclear power plants,” he said.
The National Police Agency says it has beefed up security guards at nuclear power plants. According to NPA’s report on security in 2015, special security units armed with submachine guns, rifles and specially reinforced armored vehicles have been deployed to guard nuclear-related facilities 24 hours a day.
There are a total of 1,900 such security officers across the country.
However, neither the NPA nor the NRA disclosed the exact number assigned to guard the plants, making it difficult to assess the plan.
For his part, Hideyuki Ban, with the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, said Japan should not reactivate more reactors, arguing none are designed to withstand suicidal attacks with large planes like the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001.
“The steel plate of the primary containment vessel is only about 3 cm, and the outside concrete layer is not very thick,” Ban pointed out.
“A large airplane would burst right through a containment vessel if it was directly hit.”
The Japan Times asked the NRA and Tokyo Electric Power Co. to comment on Ban’s comments, but both declined.