No endorsement of nuclear safety

Power companies and the government should not be under the illusion that the safety of nuclear power plants under the new standards of the Nuclear Regulation Authority has been endorsed by the judiciary. While last week’s decision by the Fukui District Court paves the way for Kansai Electric Power Co. to restart reactors No. 3 and 4 at its Takahama Nuclear Power Plant as early as next month, the court urged the utility and the NRA to make constant efforts to aim higher for safety in the operation of nuclear plants.

The Abe administration has pushed for restarting nuclear power plants idled in the wake of the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No.1 plant once they clear the new safety regulation introduced by the NRA — which the government has touted as the “world’s most stringent.” But as the court said last week, there is no “absolute safety” in nuclear power — as the Fukushima disaster has proven. The court decision does not rule out the risk of severe accidents at nuclear power plants.

The Fukui court reversed the decision given by the same court eight months ago under a different judge, who has since been transferred to another court. In April, the court ordered an injunction banning the restart of the Takahama plant on the Sea of Japan coast in Fukui Prefecture on the grounds that the NRA’s plant safety regulations, tightened after the Tepco plant meltdowns to make nuclear power plants resilient against bigger quakes and tsunami as well as severe accidents, were too lax to secure the plant’s safety. If the logic behind the decision was to be upheld, it would have dealt a crushing blow to the restart bid by the power industry and the administration because it negates the validity of the NRA regulation itself.

In its Dec. 24 decision on a complaint filed by Kepco against the April decision, the Fukui court said the NRA’s regulations are based on the latest scientific and technological knowledge and therefore rational. There’s nothing irrational in the NRA’s approval of Kepco’s plans to restart the Takahama plant, the court said in lifting the ban on reactivating the reactors that have cleared the NRA’s safety screening.

The two opposite decisions by the same court appear to symbolize the shakiness of legal judgments on the safety of nuclear power plant operation just four years after the nation experienced the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Residents in areas around the Takahama plant who sought the injunction banning its restart plan to take the case to a higher court, but Kepco, which started loading nuclear fuel to the No. 3 Takahama reactor the day after the court decision, is ready to reactivate it as early as next month.

Takahama is now set to be the second nuclear power plant to restart under the new NRA standard, following the Sendai plant of Kyushu Electric Power in Kagoshima Prefecture, which reactivated two of its reactors since last summer. The NRA has also given the go ahead for restarting operation at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture. It has nearly finished the examinations of two reactors at Kepco’s Oi plant, also in Fukui Prefecture, and those of Kyushu Electric’s Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture, while 17 reactors at 12 other plants are still being screened.

Along with the Abe administration, many of the local governments that host the nuclear power plants support reactivation of the plants. Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa gave his consent to restarting the Takahama plant two days before the Fukui court lifted the ban. For Kepco, restarting its nuclear power plants is a crucial importance for its finances, since it has incurred losses for four years in a row under the weight of the heavy cost of imported fuel to run the thermal power plants that are covering for the lost capacity of the idled reactors.

Meanwhile, public concern over the safety of nuclear power remains strong. Media surveys show that a majority of the respondents were opposed when the Sendai plant was restarted in August, many of them citing safety fears and concern over insufficient preparedness for evacuating local residents in the event of severe accidents. The lessons of the Tepco disaster, which spread radioactive fallout to extensive areas around the plant, prompted the government to require municipalities within 30 km of nuclear power plants to draw up evacuation plans. Doubts raised as to whether such plans compiled by the municipalities — over which the NRA has no control — are practical in ensuring the residents’ safety in case of nuclear emergencies often go unheeded. In the case of the Sendai plant, a drill involving the residents to test the evacuation plans was held in late December — four months after the first reactor was reactivated.

In lifting the ban on the Takahama plant’s restart, the Fukui court urged the utility, the national and local governments involved to take multi-layered measures to protect against severe accidents at nuclear power plants, including more effective evacuation plans. The court decision should serve as a reminder that merely clearing the NRA standard does not vouch for the safety of a nuclear power plant.

  • Richard Solomon

    I would bet that Abe, et al will ignore the Court’s comments about the lack of complete confidence in this restart. He and the industry will tout the decision as being a validation of the NRA and their plans.

    Three points are not noted in this piece. First, the Judge who ruled against the restart in April was reassigned to a family court. Was this in retaliation for his decision? Sure looks like it was when the next Judge ruled in favor of the restart.

    Second, nuclear experts in the USA recommended an 80km evacuation zone in Fukushima. Why is the zone in Japan only 30 km?

    Third, why are the evacuation drills done AFTER the plants have restarted? That is too late, don’t you think?!? How did the drills go with the Sendai plant? What problems/obstacles arose?

    • jimhopf

      Uh, some “experts” (in the US) I suppose. Almost certainly politically motivated ones. No nuclear plants in the US have a 50 mile (80 km) emergency planning zone. It is not US (NRC) policy.

      What really doesn’t make sense is why Japan, or anyone, is beefing up evacuation requirements and expanding evacuation zones in response to Fukushima when the Fukushima event itself very clearly showed that rapid evacuations are not necessary and in fact may even be counter productive (i.e., cause more harm than they prevent).

      • Sam Gilman

        One big problem was that there was no plan in place for the rapid education of the political leadership and population of the actual dangers of radioactive releases. Too many decisions were made for political reasons to be seen to be doing something, or to show that the PM was “in charge” or to bolster political credibility, rather than in the best interests of the population and the region. Political decisions following the loss of cooling have ended up harming lots more people than was necessary.

    • Sam Gilman

      Richard Solomon, again you turn up on the pages of the Japan Times spouting misinformation. Anti-nuclearism is a religion to you, but that doesn’t excuse what looks like deliberate deception.

      The 80km evacuation zone assertion was made at the time by the then anti-nuclear head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who claimed unilaterally that the fuel pools had caught fire. But they hadn’t caught fire. He was wrong. This is well known.

      That you campaign to uproot yet more people from their homes is pretty horrible.

  • jimhopf

    Frankly, there needs to be a lawsuit in the other direction, calling Japan’s indefensible decision (to close all of its reactors and use fossil fueled generation in their place) what it really is, a crime against the environment. And public health, and the economy……

    I’m well aware of the Japanese public’s attitudes, but those attitudes are indefensible. How can these judges rule that nuclear plants should remain closed indefinitely, because absolute safety and lack of impact cannot be completely assured, while allowing fossil fueled generation to be used (instead) even though all studies show that the public health risks and environmental impacts of that fossil fuel generation to be orders of magnitude larger.

    Expert consensus is that even Fukushima, the only significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire 50-year history, caused no deaths and is projected to have no measurable public health impacts in the future. Meanwhile, fossil fueled power generation causes hundreds of thousands of deaths *annually*, and is a major cause of global warming. The fossil fuels that Japan has used in lieu of nuclear over just the last 4.5 years has already had a larger public health impact (deaths, etc..) and a larger economic cost than the meltdown itself!

  • Paul Martin

    Expecting power companies to place safety before profits is llike hoping for the second coming to happen !