An agreement recently reached between Japan Atomic Power Co. and six municipalities in Ibaraki Prefecture concerning the Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant highlights the sensitivities in the relationship between power companies and local governments in areas where nuclear power facilities are located. For the first time as a nuclear power plant operator, Japan Atomic Power included not just the plant’s host village of Tokai but five nearby cities as municipalities whose consent the firm will seek in restarting the idled plant. The company will not reactivate the Tokai plant if any of the municipalities opposed the move.

Other power companies are keen to see that this agreement does not set a precedent that could also change their arrangements with nearby municipalities concerning their own nuclear plants — because that would complicate the process for winning local endorsement for restarting their idled reactors. However, it’s reasonable that municipalities in the surrounding areas of nuclear plants want to be involved in the process because they would be affected in the event of a severe accident. The power companies should respond to such requests flexibly if they wish to obtain the full cooperation of nearby municipalities.

Operators of nuclear power plants conclude agreements with local municipalities to ensure the safety of residents in areas around the plants. The agreements stipulate the lines of communication when the plants have problems, as well as procedures for prior consent to restarting and modifying reactors or building new ones, though they are not legally binding. So far, power companies have accorded the right to consent to a reactor restart to only to the municipalities and prefectures that host them, and not to surrounding municipalities.

The meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in March 2011, however, illustrated how the fallout of radioactive materials during a disaster can spread well beyond the host municipality. The government made it mandatory for municipalities within 30 km of a nuclear power plant — instead of 10 km previously — to prepare evacuation plans in case of a severe accident.

The government has promoted restarting reactors idled in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster once they have cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening under revamped safety standards — and once the plant operators have obtained the consent of local governments. But in many instances, there is a split in opinion between the host municipality — which expects to gain economic benefits from the plant’s operation and national government grants for hosting the plant — and surrounding municipalities that could be similarly exposed to the risk from an accident but have no say in the operation of the plant. While municipalities and prefectures within 30 km of plants demand that they be given the right to consent to restarts, the power companies have been resistant because it would add more hurdles to winning restart approval.

When the No. 3 reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture was reactivated in March, four of the eight municipalities within 30 km of the facility opposed the restart, but their objections went unheeded. Parts of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures fall within the 30-km radius of nuclear plants that Kansai Electric Power Co. runs in Fukui Prefecture, but neither Kyoto nor Shiga is consulted when Kepco seeks the nod to restart its reactors.

Japan Atomic Power had particular reasons to involve municipalities in the surrounding areas in the process. After the Fukushima accident, the mayor of the host village of Tokai called for a phaseout of nuclear power. The Tokai No. 2 plant is the sole nuclear power facility adjacent to the greater Tokyo area, and nearly 1 million people live within 30 km of it. Given the large number of residents who could be affected in case of an accident, the village argued that it cannot take sole responsibility for giving the go-ahead for its restart and called for a new agreement that involves the nearby cities of Mito, Naka, Hitachinaka, Hitachi and Hitachiota. The firm, which is now seeking the NRA’s approval of an extension of the aging No. 2 facility, apparently could not dismiss the request from the host municipality.

The agreement over the Tokai No. 2 plant should not be discounted as a special case. The dissatisfaction of many municipalities that are denied any say in restarting nuclear power plants — even though they face the same risk from possible accidents and the duty of ensuring safe evacuation of their residents — should not be left unaddressed. The other power companies should think again about whether the agreements they have over their nuclear power plants are sufficient to win the trust of nearby municipalities.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.