Bad precedent for nuclear restarts

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.

  • Richard Solomon

    This is a good summary of the many ways in which PM Abe and the LDP are rushing into restarting this plant without adequate attention to legitimate local concerns, safety procedures, etc. Here in the USA someone or a group could file an injunction with a court to ask that a Judge stop this from happening until more thorough preparations can be assured. There would be no guarantee that a Judge would issue an injunction in such a situation here. But it would be worth trying it.

    Is this possible in Japan? Do the courts have such authority in Japan?

    • jimhopf

      Where can I get a court injunction against Japan’s use of fossil fuels, in lieu of nuclear. I should succeed, as the financial impacts and public health risks inflicted on Japan from those (fossil) plants are far greater than any that will ever result from nuclear.

  • rossdorn

    What is the point of an article like this?

    This is the way Japan has always worked, this is the way Japan works and this is the Japan will work.

    One should always remember that it is the people that elect every government.
    Puts a bit of perspective on the country and its people, doesn’t it?

  • jimhopf

    Yeah, right. It’s clear that “fundamental questions” will always remain unanswered, the point being that some people (including this paper, apparently) will never be satisfied. It’s clear where this logic leads. Four years is not enough? Four years of keeping perfectly functional nuclear plants closed and using fossil fuels instead? If your real position is that the plants should never be restarted, just say so.

    It’s comical to watch people using more and more strained arguments to argue for keeping the plants closed. Like the suggestion that a volcano ~30 miles from a nuclear plant could have any impact on it (volcanic ash precipitation would have no effect on a nuclear plant, and it’s too far away for lava flows). Or how, after admitting that a meltdown would have no health impact on people from neighboring towns (a bit further away), they grasp at “psychological impacts” as a reason why rapid evacuation plans are necessary and why those (further) towns should have veto power over restarts. What we really learned from Fukushima is that rapid evacuation is not necessary (and in fact is likely to be counter-productive).

    The most frustrating part of all is that Japan is using fossil fuels (including coal) all this time while the nukes remain closed, despite the fact that fossil fuels are far more expensive AND have environmental impacts and public health risks that are thousands of times higher than any associated with nuclear. The additional fossil fuels Japan has used, over the last three years, have caused the deaths of thousands of Japanese, and have dumped a massive amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is far more deaths than the Fukushima event has, or will ever, cause.