Ehime has become the second prefecture to approve restarting a nuclear plant idled in the wake the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura conveyed his approval for reactivating the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant late last month. His decision, which follows the restart of two reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture in August and October, was problematic not only because of the process but also because it was made despite concerns over the safe evacuation of nearby residents in the event of a severe accident — a concern due to the site’s unique geographical features.

Nakamura used to say that he had no preconceived notions about restarting the Ikata plant. But his decision came rather suddenly and he chose not to fully explain to local residents how he reached it. Nor did he create opportunities to listen to their opinions prior to making his decision. He opted not to hold a public meeting to explain his decision on the grounds that such a gathering would only lead to the mobilization of people organized by groups on both sides of the nuclear debate — despite the fact that such events play a critical role in a democracy. An open public meeting would have given residents a chance to think deeply about the issue of nuclear energy in general and the merits and demerits of the Ikata No. 3 reactor restart in particular.

Instead, back in August the governor had the national government and Shikoku Electric explain the restart plan to representatives of six municipalities that lie within 30 km of the plant. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the government expanded the distance — from 10 km to 30 km — from a nuclear power plant where advance measures to cope with severe nuclear accidents, such as preparing evacuation plans, must be taken. But only about 480 specifically selected people, including members of municipal assemblies and business organizations, could attend these meetings. Ordinary citizens were excluded.

The sessions lasted only a few hours. About half the participants from the cities of Uwajima and Seiyo said in a written questionnaire that the explanations provided at the events were insufficient. And reportedly representatives from five of the six municipalities — the exception being Yawatahama — expressed concern about the possibility of an accident at the plant.

In an attempt to make sure sufficient explanations were given, Nakamura had the power company send employees to the homes of people living within 20 km of the plant. But it’s questionable whether this effort could adequately addressed residents’ concerns.

In approving the reactor restart, Nakamura acknowledged that it is impossible to say nuclear power is absolutely safe. He said: “It is better not to have (nuclear plants). But we have no other choice but to live with (nuclear power) by applying state-of-the-art safety measures until alternative sources are discovered.”

At the prefectural government’s request, Shikoku Electric carried out additional work on the Ikata plant to make it strong enough to withstand a seismic vibration of 1,000 gals — higher than the assumed maximum vibration intensity of 650 gals needed to pass the safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. However, questions remain over the effectiveness of evacuation plans in the event the plant suffers a severe accident.

The Ikata plant is located near the base of the Sadamisaki Peninsula, which is about 40 km long and at its narrowest point only 800 meters wide. It is feared that in the case of a severe accident, 5,000 people living between the plant and the tip of the peninsula could be stranded. The area where the residents live has four shelters equipped with filters to remove radioactive substances, but they can accommodate only 470 people. If the residents can’t escape by land, they have to use watercraft to evacuate to Oita Prefecture on the other side of the strait separating Shikoku and Kyushu. And there is the possibility that Oita might not be a safe haven given that at its closest point it’s less than 60 km away from the Ikata plant.

Of some 10,000 residents in Ikata, about 1,700 reportedly told the town office that they hope to be evacuated by bus because of their age or other reasons. But the number of buses owned by the town is limited. Bus companies are supposed to send extra vehicles to the town in the event of a major disaster, but it has not been ascertained whether they can arrive quickly enough given the possibility of damage and traffic jams. The national government is still discussing how to protect police officers and bus drivers from radiation exposure if they are mobilized to aid in the evacuation effort.

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touts the NRA’s safety standards for nuclear plants as the toughest in the world, evacuation plans in case of a severe nuclear accident are not a subject for NRA assessment. In the event of a severe accident, all 18 municipalities in Oita Prefecture are expected to accept evacuees from Sadamisaki Peninsula, but in an NHK survey, the heads of 12 municipalities expressed doubt that the evacuation plans have been adequately developed. In an evacuation drill held last week, only 270 people took part in an exercise using buses and ships.

The Ehime governor’s consent paves the way for the restart of the Ikata plant — possibly as soon as early next year — but serious doubts remain as to whether an evacuation following a severe accident will go as smoothly as assumed by the national and prefectural governments.

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