The city assembly and the mayor of Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, have given their nod to the restart of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant, whose Nos. 1 and 2 pressurized light-water reactors, each with a generation capacity of 890,000 kW, cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening in September under new safety standards that came into force after the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The Kagoshima prefectural assembly and Gov. Yuichiro Ito are also expected to approve the plan as early as this week, setting the stage for the first restart of an idled nuclear power plant under the updated standards.

Still, the concerns of many of the local residents have been left unanswered, especially those over the evacuation plans that would come into effect during a major accident at the Sendai plant.

A detailed review of the evacuation plans drawn up by the local governments has not been carried out. It would be irresponsible of the central and the local governments concerned, as well as Kyushu Electric, to go ahead with the restart without addressing the concerns of the very people who could be most affected in case of a nuclear disaster.

The move to restart the Sendai plant has brought to the fore problems in administrative procedures needed to restart a nuclear power plant that had been put offline. There are no specific regulations stipulating whether the consent of local governments near a municipality hosting the plant — besides that of the host municipality itself — is needed for restart.

The Kagoshima governor has declared that the approval of only the prefecture and Satsumasendai would be necessary for the restart. But his decision ignores the concerns of people living in neighboring municipalities who would also be affected by a severe accident at the plant. Most of these municipalities either oppose the restart or are urging the national government to address accountability concerns about the restart. Some of the municipalities have demanded that their consent should be prerequisite for the restart.

Aside from Satsumasendai, the eight municipalities are located within 30 km of the plant. These cities and towns are legally required to work out evacuation plans for their residents in case of a severe accident at the Sendai plant. This requirement is a lesson learned from the 2011 Fukushima disaster — that not only municipalities adjacent to a nuclear power plant but also those located further away from it can be severely affected by radioactive fallout from a serious accident.

The NRA mainly examines whether a nuclear power plant can withstand a major earthquake and tsunami, and whether the plant is sufficiently prepared for an accident, including whether it is equipped with emergency generators and cooling systems to continue cooling reactors when the plant is damaged by a major quake or tsunami. To examine whether evacuation plans devised by local governments will actually work is outside the purview of the NRA.

It does not stand to reason that the central government would not fully involve itself in deciding whether particular evacuation plans are reliable.

The government dispatched several officials to the local municipalities in September to check the evacuation plans, but it is not clear how much they can be involved in making sure that the plans would actually work.

In view of various factors that must be taken into account in making the evacuation plans, local residents’ fears are understandable. The two most important questions are whether means of transportation can be secured and which roads will be safe to travel after a quake or tsunami. Not all residents have cars, and it is not certain whether hospitals can secure enough buses to transport inpatients to safety.

The possibility cannot be ruled out that roads used by evacuees will be clogged and people will not be able to escape from danger quickly enough. If designated roads are destroyed by a quake or tsunami, substitute routes will need to be secured. It is not clear whether each municipality concerned and the prefectural government have clear ideas about what to do in such situations.

Whether the public facilities designated as places for accepting evacuees will be well-prepared with the necessary personnel and other resources is also a question.

Iodine pills are supposed to be given in advance to residents living within 5 km of the plant. At present, fewer than 70 percent of them have received the pills. It has not yet been decided what to do with visitors who happen to be in the area when a nuclear accident takes place, as well as new residents. The places and facilities for checking whether people’s clothes have been contaminated with radioactive substances, and for decontaminating them, have not been designated yet.

The uncertainties with regard to emergency evacuation underscore all the more the case for the national government establishing a system to check and verify such plans — and stop the planned restart of a plant if necessary — as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission does.

Even after the NRA’s safety screening of the Sendai plant, there is expert criticism that it fails to take into account all types of quakes that could hit the plant. To restart the Sendai plant while all of these concerns are still unaddressed risks ignoring the basic rights of local residents.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.