Editorials

Sendai nuclear power plant restart

Kyushu Electric Power Co. on Tuesday reactivated the No. 1 reactor of its Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture — the first under the new safety standards introduced in response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Abe administration and the power industry push for restarting the nuclear power plants idled in the wake of the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant once they have cleared the screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. However, a majority of people in various opinion polls continue to oppose the restart of the plants, which indicates that the public’s safety concerns over nuclear power have not been dispelled more than four years after the disaster.

It is questionable if the government and the power companies have fully addressed the problems exposed by the 2011 disaster — which has left tens of thousands of people in Fukushima still displaced due to radiation fallout — as they seek to reactivate the idled plants in the name of ensuring a stable supply of electricity.

The restart of the Sendai plant came 11 months after Kyushu Electric became the first of the nation’s power firms to get the NRA’s nod in the screening based on what the government touts as the world’s most stringent nuclear power plant safety standard. The No. 2 reactor at the plant, which also cleared the NRA’s screening in September last year, is expected to be reactivated as early as October.

The new standards introduced in 2013 require the operators of nuclear power plants to take additional safety measures to defend the plants against the worst anticipated quake and tsunami scenario to hit their sites as well as severe accidents. But the NRA itself admits that compliance with the standards does not guarantee the plant’s safety. A Fukui court in April challenged the rationality of the NRA standards when it ordered halted the restart of Reactors No. 3 and 4 of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant, which had followed the Sendai plant in clearing the NRA screening.

Plants that meet the new standards would certainly be more resilient against events like the one suffered by the Fukushima plant, whose emergency power supply was lost when it was hit by the massive tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, crippling the plant’s crucial core-cooling functions. But the risk of severe accidents would not be eliminated. An absolute faith in the new standards threatens to revive the “safety myth” of nuclear power that was prevalent until it was shattered in the 2011 disaster.

The massive scope of the damage from the Tepco plant meltdowns prompted the government to require municipalities within 30 km of a nuclear power plant to devise evacuation plans for local residents in case of severe accidents. In giving the go-ahead for the Sendai plant, however, Kagoshima Prefecture said the consent of only the prefecture and the host city of Satsumasendai was necessary, even though residents in other neighboring municipalities would similarly be affected in case of accidents. The NRA does not screen the validity of the evacuation plans, and no drills to test the effectiveness of plans compiled by the municipalities around the Sendai plant — which was approved by the national government last year — were held prior to the restart.

In screening the safety of the Sendai plant against natural disasters, the risk of volcanic eruptions — given its location in an area that has experienced major eruptions by more than a dozen volcanos — was effectively dismissed as the NRA endorsed Kyushu Electric’s forecast that the risk of the plant being hit by an eruption while it’s in operation would be negligible. The power company says it will halt the plant’s operation and ship spent fuel to safe areas if it detects signs of eruptions, but many volcanologists have cast doubts on the viability of this plan.

The restart of the Sendai plant’s No. 1 reactor ended the standstill of nuclear power that had continued since Kansai Electric’s Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture was shut down in September 2013 — after it was put briefly back online to fill a power supply shortage in the Kansai region. All other nuclear plants have remained offline since they were idled for regular maintenance in the wake of the 2011 Tepco plant meltdowns.

Since the new safety standards were introduced in 2013, power companies have applied to the NRA for approval of their plans to reactivate 25 reactors at 15 plants across Japan. But the NRA’s nod has so far been given on only five reactors, including the two at the Sendai plant. The restart of the Takahama plant reactors is on hold due to the court injunction, while local municipalities have yet to give their consent to a restart of the No. 3 reactor of Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture.

The government and the power companies cite the need for a stable power supply as they seek to reactivate the nuclear power plants. For much of the period after the Fukushima disaster, the nation did without nuclear power, which had accounted for roughly 30 percent of its electricity supply prior to 2011. Power companies fired up more thermal power plants, including aging facilities, to make up for the loss of nuclear power. The cost of imported fuel to run the thermal power plants have weighed heavily on the earnings of the power companies. Electricity charges have meanwhile been substantially hiked for both consumers and businesses. The government lamented that Japan was losing trillions of yen each year to import the fuel, whose cost also went up sharply with the steep fall of the yen under the Abe administration.

At the same time, a power supply crunch has been avoided also partly because of energy-saving measures taken after the disaster as well as a sharp increase in solar power generation, accelerated by the introduction of a feed-in tariff system. The Abe administration, even after reversing its predecessor’s policy of seeking a phaseout of nuclear power, still says it will seek to reduce the nation’s dependency on nuclear power as much as possible by increasing the supply of renewable energy and taking energy-saving steps.

While seeking to reactivate the idled reactors, the government has yet to address many of the long-term problems in Japan’s nuclear power generation. Its program of seeking to establish a nuclear fuel cycle — in which spent fuel from power plants would be reprocessed to produce mixed oxide (MOX) fuel — is effectively stalled as the completion of a fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture has been delayed for years due to a series of problems and the nation’s sole fast-breeder reactor, Monju, has been mostly offline for nearly two decades now. The government has also yet to find a site for the final disposal of highly-radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, with questions raised by many experts over its plan to bury the waste deep underground.

The restart of operations at the Sendai plant should serve as an occasion for the government, the power industry and the public to reassess the sustainability of nuclear power generation in this country.