Following the recent go-ahead given by Kagoshima Prefecture and the host city of Satsumasendai, Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant is likely to be reactivated by early next year — the first under safety guidelines adopted in the wake of the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But the move contains serious safety and procedural problems, and there is a risk that the Abe administration and power companies will use it as a precedent to rush the restart of more nuclear power plants without fully addressing the legitimate safety concerns of local residents.

Given the lessons from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, municipalities within 30 km of a nuclear power plant are required to work out evacuation plans for residents in the event of a serious accident. In the case of the Sendai plant, eight municipalities, in addition to Satsumasendai, were required to draw up evacuation plans.

In a September meeting of the national government’s nuclear disaster management council, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the evacuation plans as “concrete and rational” despite the absence of a formal procedure for the central government to examine such plans. It is unclear how detailed an examination the government gave the plans and whether it checked their operability against worst-case scenarios. Many local residents who took part in a series of explanatory meetings expressed concerns about safety — which are understandable given the procedural setup.

Located in an area with a history of volcanic activity, the Sendai plant is viewed as being vulnerable to future possible eruptions. Kyushu Electric says that if an imminent eruption is predicted, it will take the nuclear fuel out of the plant’s two reactors as a safety precaution. But it is difficult to predict volcanic eruptions and the company has yet to decide how to transport the fuel and where it can be safely stored.

The plant itself has problems. Filtered ventilation systems to reduce the amount of radioactive materials released from the reactor core in emergencies will not be installed for another two years. And the plant has not established a permanent off-site facility to serve as a command center in emergencies. A temporary facility will be used for the time being.

In a news conference held after giving his consent to the restart, Kagoshima Gov. Yuichiro Ito declared that there would be “no issue of life or death” for local residents in the event of an evacuation, citing the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s assessment of possible radiation fallout from a severe accident at the Sendai plant. This statement ignores key lessons of the Fukushima crisis — that a severe nuclear accident can quickly spin out of control, and that even if radiation exposure does not claim any lives, the stress caused by evacuation and loss of property can cause grave and sometimes fatal health issues.

Because Ito decided that approval by the host city and Kagoshima Prefecture are sufficient to approve the restart, the exclusion of the eight other municipalities in the approval procedure for the Sendai plant may be used as a precedent by the Abe administration and other power firms as there are no legal regulations concerning which municipalities should be involved in such decisions. In short, the will of the people in nearby municipalities who may be directly affected by a severe nuclear accident can be completely ignored.

Trade and industry minister Yoichi Miyazawa said that if a nuclear accident occurs, the national government will be responsible for handling it. But the experience of the Fukushima disaster shows that such a promise means little in reality.

As the seemingly last key hurdle for the restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant is lifted, a dangerous precedent has been set and many fundamental questions remain unanswered.

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