*Editorial: 40-year rule for nuclear reactors on verge of being a dead letter — The Asahi Shimbun

” The 40-year lifespan for nuclear reactors, established after the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, is now in danger of being watered down to irrelevance.

The rule requires the decommissioning of aging reactors, starting with the oldest, for a gradual, carefully controlled process of phasing out nuclear power generation in this country.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on April 20 formally decided that the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which have been in service for over 40 years, meet new nuclear safety standards introduced after the devastating 2011 accident.

This is the first license renewal for a reactor that has been in operation for more than four decades under the new standards.

If they pass the remaining regulatory inspections concerning technical details by the July deadline, the reactors will likely continue to generate electricity for two more decades.

The 40-year lifespan provision was introduced through a revision to the law after the Fukushima disaster.

Just one service life extension of up to 20 years is allowed, but only as an “extremely exceptional” measure.

This exception was made to avoid a shortage of electricity. But concerns about any serious power crunch have virtually dissipated thanks to a marked rise in levels of power and energy conservation in society.

The NRA’s formal decision to extend the life of the two aging reactors came amid a series of earthquakes rocking central Kyushu around Kumamoto Prefecture which have been described by the Japan Meteorological Agency as “a deviation from the rules extracted from past experiences.”

Many Japanese are concerned that the quakes could affect Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai nuclear plant in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture. The NRA’s decision to grant an exception to the rule so quickly could have the effect of relaxing the safety standards and deepening public distrust of the government’s nuclear regulation.

The Abe administration is leaving all licensing decisions on individual reactors entirely to the NRA. But it has mapped out a long-term energy supply plan based on the assumption that the service life of reactors will be extended.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who repeatedly pledged to lower Japan’s dependence on nuclear power as much as possible, has been changing his stance little by little without announcing any clear policy shift.

The NRA’s mission is to enhance the safety of nuclear plants from a scientific viewpoint.

But the way the nuclear watchdog assessed the safety of the reactors at the Takahama plant has raised questions about its appropriateness. The NRA has, for instance, allowed Kansai Electric Power to delay required quake resistance tests.

If it has scheduled its assessment work in a way to ensure that the July deadline will be met, the agency has got its priorities completely wrong.

A troubling situation is now emerging where decisions on whether to decommission specific reactors are effectively left to the utilities that operate them. As a result, these decisions are being based primarily on whether extending the life of the reactors will pay.

Operating many nuclear reactors in Japan, a small country with a large population that is highly prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters, inevitably entails a large risk.

This grim reality was the starting point for the reform of the nuclear power policy prompted by the Fukushima accident.

If the government sticks to the policy of maintaining nuclear power generation, the burden on society, including the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, could increase over the long term.

There is a clear global trend toward raising energy self-sufficiency through efforts to develop renewable energy sources.

A transition period may be necessary. But the only policy that makes sense is to shut down reactors steadily over a period of years.

The 40-year rule is one of the key principles of this policy. The government should remember this fact.

–The Asahi Shimbun, April 21 ”

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Editorial: Takahama reactor restart raises fresh nuclear safety concerns — The Asahi Shimbun

” 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. ”

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Thousands evacuated in disaster drills near Japan’s 1st post-Fukushima nuclear plant — RT

” About 3,600 officials and residents have taken part in nuclear disaster drills near Japan’s Sendai Nuclear Power Plant. The plant was the first to be reopened following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, despite warnings over tectonic risks.

The drills in Kagoshima Prefecture in southwestern Japan, within 30 km of the power plant, simulated a serious nuclear accident, Kyodo news reported. At least 1,200 residents who were living within 5 km from the Sendai plant were evacuated by buses and other vehicles.

These exercises assumed that the nuclear plant might have been hit by an earthquake ranked 6 or higher on the Japanese scale of 7 and the plant lost power sources which made it unable to cool its reactors.

Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, in the city of Satsumasendai, with a population of 100,000 people, has become the first nuclear plant to be restarted after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima power plant, where an earthquake led to reactor meltdown and widespread contamination. Like all of Japan’s 48 functional reactors, Sendai’s 890 MW generators were mothballed in the months following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Its Reactor # 1 was restarted in August 2015, then the authorities re-opened Reactor # 2 in November. The plant, operated by the Kyushu Electric Power Company, employs about 300 workers.

Following the reopening of the plant, the prefecture was hit by huge protests against restarting of operations.

Sendai is located near the volcanically active Kirishima mountain range. Mount Ioyama, located just 65 kilometers away from the plant, is experiencing tremors, prompting the Meteorological Agency to issue warnings. The government’s nuclear agency has dismissed volcanic risks over Sendai’s lifetime as “negligible,” however.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster was the second after Chernobyl to measure Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The tragedy caused the complete shutdown of the Japanese nuclear facilities in 2013, despite 30 percent of electricity previously coming from the nuclear power. The authorities are still trying to clean up and contain contamination after the Fukushima crisis. ”

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Kyushu Electric reactor No. 1 set to resume full commercial operation — The Japan Times

” Kyushu Electric Power Co. is set to begin full-scale commercial operation of reactor No. 1 at its Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture after the unit cleared a final inspection by the regulator on Thursday.

The plant’s No. 1 reactor has been generating and feeding electricity to the grid on a trial basis since it went live on Aug. 11, becoming the nation’s first reactor to resume operation under safety regulations adopted after the 2011 nuclear crisis.

Kyushu Electric Power plans to reactivate reactor No. 2 at the two-unit Sendai plant in mid-October.

The utility expects its earnings to improve by ¥15 billion a month when the two units are back online.

It projects posting a group net profit of ¥45 billion in the first half of the current business year through March, due to the restart of the No. 1 unit. It hopes to put its full-year earnings into the black for the first time in five years.

Before reactor No. 1 was reactivated in August, Japan had no nuclear power supply for nearly two years, as all commercial reactors were gradually taken offline in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Other power companies are also desperate to bring their reactors back online to reduce their fossil-fuel bills. However, analysts say the outlook remains uncertain as hurdles include the in-depth and lengthy safety screenings required by the regulator. ”

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Updated 8/25/2015: Seawater leak found at Sendai nuclear plant — NHK World; Japan’s Sendai reactor power ramp-up halted due to pump problem — Yahoo! News

Updated Aug. 25, 2015, NHK World:

” The operator of the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, says it found seawater used to cool steam has leaked from some pipes.

The trouble occurred at a condenser for the plant’s No.1 reactor last Thursday. Officials at Kyushu Electric Power Company found elevated salt levels in the machine.

The condenser uses seawater to turn the steam from the power turbine back into water. The reactor has 3 condensers, and each one is equipped with 26,000 thin pipes to carry seawater.

Utility officials have been checking these pipes. They say they found cracks in 5 pipes in one condenser and that seawater had leaked from them.

The officials stopped the flow of seawater by putting plugs in the 5 pipes. They are now checking the other tubes. The utility firm says they will keep running the reactor.

The trouble occurred 9 days after the operator restarted the reactor on August 11th. It was the first to go back online under new regulations introduced after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

The utility was due to raise the reactor’s power output to 100 percent on Tuesday. But the problems are expected to delay the scheduled work by about one week. ”

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Posted Aug. 24, 2015, Yahoo! News:

” TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s Kyushu Electric Power has halted the ramp-up of power output from its Sendai No. 1 nuclear reactor due to a problem with a pump in the plant’s secondary cooling system, a spokesman said on Friday.

Kyushu Electric last week began the restart of the Sendai plant, the first of Japan’s reactors to begin operation under new safety standards introduced in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Engineers and regulators have warned that the utility may encounter equipment problems and failures as the Sendai No. 1 reactor has been idled for more than four years.

The utility suspects that seawater has entered one of the pumps in the secondary cooling system, where steam that turns the turbines to produce electricity is cooled, according to the spokesman.

Kyushu Electric had planned to raise output from the reactor to 95 percent by Friday, but delayed the process.

It had planned to achieve full power by Aug. 25 and begin commercial operation in early September after a final check from the atomic regulator.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a strong proponent of nuclear power, is seeking to reassure a nervous public that the industry is now safe.

Abe and much of Japanese industry want reactors to be switched on again to cut fuel bills, but opinion polls show a majority of the public oppose the move after the nuclear crisis triggered by the earthquake and tsunami four years ago. ”

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Updated 8/24/2015: Volcano issues unaddressed in nuclear plant restart; Japan raises warning level on volcano 50 km from just-restarted nuclear plant — The Japan Times

Updated Aug. 24, 2015, The Japan Times:

” Japan has seen its first nuclear power reactor restart in more than two years despite persisting safety issues related to volcanic eruptions.

The No. 1 reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture came back online on Tuesday.

But the utility has not designated a site for relocating nuclear fuel in the event of a massive volcanic eruption, claiming that warning signs would give Kepco enough time to prepare and transfer the fuel.

The utility and the Nuclear Regulation Authority have also decided there is little chance of a major volcanic eruption in the next several decades.

In the event of a major eruption, however, pyroclastic flows could reach the plant and disable cooling functions for its reactors and spent fuel, which could trigger massive radioactive emissions.

There are five major calderas around the Sendai plant, suggesting that massive eruptions have occurred there.

The plant currently stores 1,946 fuel assemblies in spent fuel pools. The sheer volume makes it hard to find a relocation site big enough to take them.

A panel of volcano experts advising the NRA has compiled a report indicating that there are currently no technologies that can precisely predict the timing and scale of a major eruption.

Toshitsugu Fujii, a member of the panel and chairman of the Meteorological Agency’s Coordinating Committee for Prediction of Volcanic Eruptions, has said that the panel’s opinion is not necessarily consistent with that of the NRA.

According to experts, the commonly held view is that it is impossible to predict a major eruption from warning signs because such eruptions occur only once every 10,000 years in Japan, so the data are scant.

The panel has proposed launching an advisory organization to the NRA to help deal with volcanic eruption forecasting. Due to time constraints, however, the launch of the organization is expected to be in September at the earliest.

The panel has also pointed out that the NRA should set standards for judgments on whether an impending eruption would be huge, but the time-line for setting such criteria is undecided.

Evacuation-plan worries

Two hospitals and 15 welfare facilities for elderly people within 10 km of the Sendai plant should have evacuation plans in the event that a serious nuclear accident occurs. However, concerns remain.

The prefectural government initially asked welfare facilities within 30 km of the plant to draw up evacuation plans in line with a central government policy. But it later changed course. Kagoshima Gov. Yuichiro Ito insisted that it would be enough if evacuation plans within 10 km are in place and that those beyond that would be unworkable.

The Otama-san no Ie elderly group home, the welfare facility closest to the nuclear plant — about 1 km south of the plant’s main gate — included an evacuation destination beyond 30 km of the plant and four routes to it in its plans.

“This is supplementary to local governments’ evacuation plans,” said Keiji Miyauchi, general manager of the group home.

Under the group home’s evacuation plans, residents will be first taken to a nearby shelter built by the Satsumasendai city government. The shelter, equipped with a filtered venting system that can block radioactive materials, has four days’ worth of water and food.

But Miyauchi said: “The group home has only a staff of two during the night shift. It would be difficult to take 18 elderly residents, some of whom are in wheelchairs, to the shelter.”

Miyauchi is also concerned about the evacuation routes. “Roads would be congested because they are narrow,” he said. “Some roads may be destroyed and made inaccessible if an earthquake occurs.”

Broad evacuation plans are available but details cannot be fixed, said an official at another elderly facility within 10 km of the nuclear plant. “Needs among elderly people change depending on the season,” the official said.

The facility has an evacuation agreement in place for an elderly home located beyond 30 km from the nuclear plant to accept its residents. But how to care for these evacuees remains uncertain.

“A facility alone can’t determine what to do after evacuations, and this is a matter that needs to be decided by the central or prefectural government,” the official said. ”

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Also read The Japan Times’ article, “Volcanic activity slows at Sakurajima but alert remains in force

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Posted Aug. 17, 2015, The Japan Times:

” The Meteorological Agency said Saturday that Mount Sakurajima in Kagoshima Prefecture, 50 km from a just-restarted nuclear plant, is showing signs of increased volcanic activity and that nearby residents should prepare to evacuate.

In line with the move, the Kagoshima municipal government issued an evacuation advisory to the residents of three districts on the island where the volcano is located.

Sakurajima is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes and erupts almost constantly. But a larger than usual eruption could be in the offing, an official at the weather agency said.

“There is the danger that stones could rain down on areas near the mountain’s base, so we are warning residents of those areas to be ready to evacuate if needed,” the official added.

The agency also said it had raised the warning level on the peak, 990 km southwest of Tokyo, to an unprecedented 4, for prepare to evacuate, from 3.

Japan on Tuesday restarted a reactor at the Sendai nuclear plant, some 50 km from Sakurajima. It is the first reactor to be restarted under new safety standards put in place after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Critics have long pointed out that the plant is also located near five giant calderas, crater-like depressions formed by past eruptions, with the closest one some 40 km away.

Still, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has said the chance of major volcanic activity during the life span of the Sendai plant is negligible.

Two years ago, Sakurajima shot ash some 5,000 meters into the air.

Japan lies on the “Ring of Fire” — a horseshoe-shaped band of fault lines and volcanoes around the edges of the Pacific Ocean — and is home to more than 100 active volcanoes.

Last year, Mount Ontake in central Japan erupted unexpectedly, killing 63, the worst volcanic disaster for nearly 90 years. In May, a remote island south of Kyushu was evacuated due to another eruption. ”

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