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Questions remain about courts' decisions

April 7, 2016

Editorial: Questions remain over high court decision on Sendai nuke plant


The Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court has dismissed an appeal by residents near the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture against a lower court decision that rejected their demand that operations at the power station be provisionally suspended.


The appeal court upheld a decision handed down by the Kagoshima District Court decision in April 2015 on the grounds that there is no irrationality in the new regulatory standards that the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) set following the March 2011 outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, endorsing the restart of the power plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co.

However, questions remain over the appeal court's evaluation of evacuation plans for local residents in case of a serious nuclear accident at the plant as well as countermeasures against volcanic eruptions.

In the latest decision, the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court stated that the safety that must be ensured at nuclear plants should be judged based on social norms, noting that it is impossible to completely eliminate risks of accidents at such power stations. The court then evaluated the quake-resistance of the plant, measures to protect the power station from possible volcanic eruptions and local governments' evacuation plans for residents -- which were key points of contention -- and concluded that the plant poses no specific risks of causing serious damage to nearby residents.

However, the myth of the infallible safety of atomic power stations has collapsed with the crisis at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Needless to say, the operators of nuclear plants must draw up and implement countermeasures on the assumption that serious accidents could occur.

Therefore, evacuation plans for local residents in case of an accident are crucial. It is the responsibility of local governments that host or are situated near atomic power plants to work out evacuation plans for local residents. However, such plans are not subject to safety evaluations by the NRA under its new regulatory standards. Evacuation plans should be covered by NRA screening in order to ensure their efficacy.

However, the appeal court ruled that even if evacuation plans are to lack efficacy, it would not mean that operations at nuclear plants pose an immediate threat to the lives and health of local residents. The court stated that it is a matter of legislative policy, and therefore not irrational, that evacuation plans are not subject to the new regulatory standards.

However, serious questions should be raised over whether it is appropriate under social norms to give the green light for reactivation of nuclear plants even though evacuation plans are inadequate.

Last month, the Otsu District Court issued a provisional injunction ordering Kansai Electric Power Co. to suspend operations at the No. 3 and 4 reactors at its Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. In its decision, the court said, "It is the national government's duty in the principle of faith and trust to work out regulatory standards that take into consideration evacuation plans." This is a more sensible idea.

The high court criticized the NRA for evaluating the impact of volcanoes on nearby nuclear plants on the premise that the timing and scale of volcanic eruptions is predictable.

At the same time, however, the court concluded that it is common sense that risks of massive volcanic eruptions that local residents point out can be ignored, noting that the possibility of such disasters is not taken into account in construction and other regulations.

However, many members of the public are apparently doubtful of treating nuclear plants, which could seriously affect wide areas if an accident were to occur, in the same way as ordinary structures.

Social consensus has not been formed on risks of accidents at nuclear power stations as even courts are divided over evaluations of such dangers.

The government and electric power companies that operate atomic power plants should take public concerns about nuclear accidents seriously and hold in-depth discussions on the issue.



Court decisions divided over risk evaluations of nuclear reactors


April 7, 2016 (Mainichi Japan)

Japanese courts have been divided in their decisions over residents' petitions for provisional injunctions ordering the suspension of nuclear reactors filed across the country, and the fate of reactor reactivation is likely to remain in the hands of judicial rulings.

On April 6, the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court approved the operation of the No. 1 and 2 reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, dismissing residents' petition for a provisional injunction ordering the suspension of the reactors.

Unlike the Otsu District Court's injunction in March ordering the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture be halted, the Fukuoka High Court branch acknowledged that social norms do not call for a "zero risk" over the possibility of nuclear accidents.

After the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant meltdowns in March 2011, there were nine court decisions over injunction requests for nuclear reactors. Of them, three decisions ordered the reactors be halted -- the aforementioned Otsu District Court decision, the May 2014 Fukui District Court decision over the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, and the same court's April 2015 decision over the Takahama plant.

In response to the April 6 decision by the Fukuoka High Court's Miyazaki branch, petitioners are set to consider whether to appeal it to seek the Supreme Court's decision. There are other pending petitions and lawsuits over nuclear reactors across the country, including the one over the No. 3 reactor at the Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture, which operator Shikoku Electric Power Co. is seeking to restart this coming summer.

Court decisions over nuclear reactors are split over how far accident risks carried by nuclear reactors are tolerated by social norms. The Fukuoka High Court branch's decision pointed out that unpredictable risks would remain even if the scientific and technical knowledge reflected in the new regulatory standards adopted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is updated, and concluded that "while risks remain, it cannot be said there is a concrete danger" -- in defiance of the Otsu District Court's decision that called for a zero nuclear accident risk.

Courts were also divided in their opinions over resident evacuation plans. The Fukuoka High Court's Miyazaki branch ruled in favor of Kyushu Electric Power Co., the operator of the Sendai plant, on the grounds that the central government has approved the utility's nuclear evacuation plans, saying, "Even if the plans lack in rationality and effectiveness, they are not recognized to immediately infringe on residents' personal rights."

With regard to the NRA's volcano risk evaluation guide premised on detecting signs of major eruptions, the high court branch raised questions by saying, "We must say eruption predictions are difficult and unreasonable." The high court branch, however, went on to state, "The danger of catastrophic eruptions can be ignored" -- again defying a zero risk theory.

At a regular press conference on April 6, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka refuted the high court branch's decision, saying, "It is the NRA's view that elaborate observations should be made for early predictions of eruptions and prompt responses should be made," ruling out the possibility of reviewing its volcano risk evaluation guide.

Shigeyuki Suto, professor of the Faculty of Law at Waseda University, criticized the decision by the Fukuoka High Court's Miyazaki branch, saying, "The decision lacks in an attitude that questions from the public point of view whether the new regulatory standards drawn up by a group of experts are reasonable or not. The decision that the nuclear reactors (at the Sendai plant) are not subject to immediate suspension even if resident evacuation plans are insufficient was also a sheer formality."



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