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Government is involved in nuclear matters whether it wants it or not

October 5, 2017


EDITORIAL: Tokyo must face up to its duty in legal process for nuclear restarts




Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. was the culprit of an unprecedented disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.


The utility remains busy to this day cleaning up after the mess.


Let us ask: should TEPCO be allowed to reactivate part of its fleet of idled nuclear reactors?


The central government has the responsibility to provide explanations to the public and to seek to gain their understanding. It should not proceed with nuclear restarts without fulfilling that duty and without serious debate.


The Nuclear Regulation Authority has approved a draft of its safety screening results for two of the seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture, which TEPCO is hoping to bring back online. The nuclear watchdog’s document says the reactors conform to technical standards.


The development means the central government procedures for allowing the reactors to go back online have turned the corner. That also defines a milestone that could accelerate the recent trend for a “return to nuclear power.”




The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken the stance that, if the NRA approves a nuclear reactor’s conformity with regulation standards, the central government will respect that decision and allow the reactor to go back online upon gaining the understanding of hosting communities.


But something important is missing from that approach.


Decisions on nuclear restarts, in essence, should not all be left up to the NRA and local governments to make. The central government should be making such decisions from an overall perspective by taking into account a variety of factors, including the risk of accidents, safety measures and social need.


TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, of all nuclear power plants across Japan, stands out by the large number of serious issues that have to be addressed.


For example, will survivors of the Fukushima disaster accept the restarts? Will it be possible to ensure safety, including by working out emergency evacuation plans, and erase concerns among the residents of neighboring areas?


In calling for restarts of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, officials have placed so much emphasis on a need to make money to cover the expenses of dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Be that as it may, are the restarts really necessary for ensuring a stable power supply and for keeping electricity rates at low levels, as they claim?


And how precisely is the government planning to lower its dependence on nuclear energy on the basis of remorse over the Fukushima disaster?


These questions are on the minds of many members of the public, including those in Fukushima and Niigata prefectures. The central government has to address those questions.

The NRA is only responsible for technical checks by experts on the safety of nuclear power-generating facilities. This time around, the NRA took a special step, applicable only to TEPCO, in trying to decide if the utility is “qualified” to operate nuclear reactors.


That very step taken shows a flawed nature of the current procedures for nuclear restarts.

The NRA discussed, among other things, if TEPCO has sufficiently improved its culture of safety and its cliquish mold, and if a need to assign considerable labor and cash to the decommissioning of the Fukushima No. 1 reactors will not leave safety measures neglected at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.


The NRA was right in doing so, but it ended up giving the green light on the basis of the TEPCO president’s mere oath of determination that the utility will hold itself responsible for safety, even though the NRA had yet to delve deeply enough into the issues of TEPCO’s management structure and organizational administration. That decision could only be described as slapdash.




As things now stand, the procedures for allowing a nuclear reactor to be restarted are all left up to the NRA, local governments in areas hosting the nuclear plant and the power utility operating the plant. The whole setup must be reviewed and redesigned into a mechanism that allows the central government to take ample responsibility.


The Abe administration emphasizes that the NRA screening standards are the most stringent in the world. The NRA itself, however, has reiterated that the standards only amount to minimum requirements.


The Abe administration, before everything else, should stop trying to create the impression that the NRA has fully guaranteed safety.


Emergency evacuation plans are not covered by the NRA screenings. The central government should have a hand in the matter.


There are also problems in the roles of the central and local governments.


Once the NRA procedure is over, the focus of attention shifts to whether prefectural and municipal governments in the area hosting the nuclear plant will grant their approvals for a reactor restart. That procedure, however, is only based on safety agreements with the power utility operating the plant.


In view of the serious nature of the damage that would result from a severe accident, the approval procedure should be given a legal status, along with direct involvement of the central government.


There is need for creating a system whereby all local governments within a 30-kilometer radius of a nuclear plant, which are obligated to develop emergency evacuation plans, consult with the central government, discuss a broad range of issues including effectiveness of the plans and the need for a restart, and decide whether to allow a reactor to go online.


The central government has said whether to restart individual nuclear reactors is a managerial decision on the part of power utilities, thereby staying away from coming to the fore.


The use of atomic energy, however, is a “national policy implemented by the private sector,” which has been bolstered by a number of policy incentives. The central government is therefore not allowed to just remain leaving it all up to nuclear plant operators.


TEPCO, of all utilities, has come under de facto central government ownership because it could no longer pay damages for the Fukushima disaster and clean up radioactive substances out of its own resources. The industry ministry is controlling TEPCO’s management policies.

The central government should assume the responsibility jointly with TEPCO for addressing questions and concerns over the planned nuclear restarts.




When the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors formally pass NRA screenings in the near future, that is expected to have a major impact on the future of nuclear energy in Japan.


All the 12 nuclear reactors that have so far passed NRA screenings represent pressurized-water reactors located in western Japan. The reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant will be the first boiling-water reactors--of the same type as the crippled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant--to pass the screenings.


That is likely to prime the pump and boost a trend for restarting more reactors in eastern Japan in the coming years.


Reactivation of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors would also revive a picture of the “pre-Fukushima” years in the greater Tokyo region, wherein major power consumption areas enjoyed benefits at the cost of pushing the risk of nuclear power generation on provincial areas.


Scars of the Fukushima disaster have yet to be healed more than six years after the tragic event. A majority of the public remains critical of the use of atomic energy.


Amid those circumstances is the growing list of completed check marks toward nuclear restarts, with the central government remaining ever elusive on the responsibilities it would have to assume.


We cannot afford to let such a situation just continue on. It is up to our entire society to face up to the issue of nuclear power generation.


Political parties should clearly set out their stances on the issue during campaigning for the Oct. 22 Lower House election. That would prompt debate in the Diet, which would, in turn, give the public an opportunity to rethink the matter.


The question of the restarts of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear reactors should be a trigger for such a development.


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