Editorials

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.