” The No. 3 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, is set to restart on Jan. 29.
It will be the third nuclear reactor to be brought back online under stricter safety regulations drawn up by the Nuclear Regulation Authority after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
The No. 1 and No. 2 reactors of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture were brought back online in August and October, respectively.
This March will mark the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Electric utilities have formally requested that the NRA inspect 25 of the 43 reactors across the nation, plus one under construction, to determine whether they meet the new safety standards.
The No. 3 unit at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture is expected to be the next reactor to go online following the ones at the Sendai and Takahama plants.
We are deeply concerned about offline reactors starting up again one after another, especially as there are troubling signs that the bitter lessons from Fukushima are being lost.
Once again we express our opposition to the plan to restart the Takahama plant reactor.
Safety Concerns Being Ignored
In a July 2011 editorial, we called for a major shift in the government’s energy policy to build a society without nuclear power generation.
Before the 2011 calamity, nuclear energy accounted for nearly 30 percent of power supply in Japan.
There was concern that terminating nuclear power generation immediately would trigger a massive power crunch and soaring electricity bills, seriously impacting people’s livelihoods.
We argued that Japan should sharply reduce its dependence on atomic power and strive to build a society powered mainly by renewable energy sources.
We also maintained that offline nuclear reactors should be allowed to resume operations only after their safety has been ascertained and they were clearly necessary for meeting demand for electricity.
The first thing to point out about the plan to bring the reactor at the Takahama plant back on stream is that the “safety first” principle has been ignored.
The grim lesson we learned from Fukushima is that nuclear accidents far above anyone’s expectations can actually happen.
Fifteen nuclear reactors are located around Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture, including some that are being decommissioned. This area has one of the highest concentrations of nuclear power facilities in the world.
What would happen if a natural disaster, for instance, triggers severe accidents at more than one nuclear power plant in a particular area?
No clear answer has been given to this question, which was raised by the Fukushima triple meltdown.
The NRA paid scant attention to this risk in its safety inspection of the reactor at the Takahama plant.
Last year, Kansai Electric Power decided to scrap two small and aged reactors in Fukui Prefecture, where it has 11 reactors in total. But the utility also decided to continue operating three reactors beyond their 40th year of service.
There is no denying that efforts to minimize the safety risks involved in the reactors in the prefecture have been grossly insufficient.
The No. 3 unit at the Takahama plant is a so-called plutonium-thermal reactor which burns mixed oxide (MOX) fuel consisting of plutonium blended with uranium. It should not be forgotten that this fact further increases safety concerns among local residents.
Poor Safety Protection for Residents
The emergency evacuation plan, which should serve as the last protective shield for local residents during nuclear emergencies, is far from reliable.
Local governments of areas within 30 kilometers of a nuclear power plant are required to develop plans for emergency evacuations of local residents.
A total of 12 municipalities in the three prefectures of Fukui, Kyoto and Shiga are located within that distance of the Takahama plant. They have a combined population of 179,000.
Late last year, the government’s Nuclear Emergency Preparedness Commission approved the wide-area evacuation plans that have been worked out by the three prefectures.
In the worst case scenario, local residents living within a 30-km radius would be evacuated to 56 cities and towns in the four prefectures of Fukui, Hyogo, Kyoto and Tokushima, according to these plans.
But only seven cities of the 56 municipalities have devised plans to accept evacuees in such a situation, according to a survey by The Asahi Shimbun.
Most of the municipal governments surveyed said they had concerns about factors such as their ability to secure necessary facilities, manpower and materials to accept evacuees and the possibility of vehicles contaminated with radiation entering their areas.
Their anxiety is by no means surprising given that before the Fukushima accident it was not assumed that residents living outside a 10-km radius of a nuclear power plant might have to be evacuated in a nuclear emergency.
Ensuring the effectiveness of evacuation plans requires repeated drills and reviews to evaluate the blueprints.
But no evacuation drill has been conducted under an evacuation plan for an area around the Takahama plant. It is deeply worrisome to see the reactor being restarted without confirmation of the feasibility and effectiveness of the evacuation plans.
In response to anxiety among local residents, many of the local governments of areas within 30 km of the plant asked Kansai Electric Power to give them the right to consent to a plan to restart a reactor.
But the utility rejected their requests, while the central government has stuck to the position that all that is required for a reactor restart is consent from the local governments of the area where it is located.
Restarting a reactor without solving these safety issues can only be described as a premature move.
Road Map Needed for Nuclear-free Future
Electric power companies have stressed concerns about stable power supply and rises in electricity charges due to increasing fuel costs as main reasons for their efforts to resume operations of idle reactors.
But the situations related to these problems have been clearly changing prior to the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster.
All nuclear reactors remained out of operation for nearly two years until last summer. But no serious power shortage occurred during the period.
In addition to various maneuverings by utilities to meet demand, such as delaying regular safety checks of their thermal power plants, spreading power-saving efforts among the public also contributed significantly to preventing a power crunch.
Kansai Electric Power’s sales of electricity, for instance, have fallen by about 10 percent from before the Fukushima accident.
Deregulation of the power retail market will allow households to choose their suppliers, starting in April. This will make consumers even more conscious of the efficiency of their use of electricity.
After growing for a while because of factors blamed on the economic effects of shutting down reactors, Japan’s trade deficit has started shrinking thanks to falls in fuel costs due to lower crude prices.
Kansai Electric Power says it can lower its electricity charges if the reactor at the Takahama plant starts running again. But amid serious safety concerns, this offers no convincing rationale for restarting the reactor.
Another big question related to reactor restarts is how to find a location for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel that is piling up in pools within nuclear power complexes.
The dispute over the plan to restart the reactor in Fukui Prefecture has underscored differences in the stance of the local communities calling for the implementation of the plan, and that of the Kansai region, which has generally been cautious about supporting the plan despite the fact that it consumes the electricity generated at the nuclear plant.
There can be no realistic vision for a future without nuclear power generation without support from the local communities that have been hosting nuclear plants for many years.
All the parties involved, including not only the central government but also areas that consume electricity generated at nuclear power plants, should work together to lay out such a future vision. ”