18 Juin 2012
June 18, 2012
Now that the government has decided to reactivate the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, attention has turned to which will be next among the nation's other 48 idle reactors.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three Cabinet ministers in charge of nuclear energy policies gave the green light Saturday to resume operations of the two reactors at the plant run by Kansai Electric Power Co.
Which reactor will be reactivated next is expected to be left up to a new nuclear regulatory commission to be established in August at the earliest. However, there are no clear prospects for restarting more reactors because it has not been decided how the new organization will confirm their safety.
At a press conference held Saturday after the four-minister meeting, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano said the Cabinet would not decide on reactivating the 48 reactors.
"The new regulatory organization will make its own decisions [regarding the safety of the reactors] independently" from the government, Edano said.
It is unclear, however, to what extent the nuclear regulatory commission will take the current safety standards into consideration when making its assessments.
The current standards, compiled at the request of Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, consist of three main pillars:
-- Whether an operator has implemented measures to prevent a severe accident, such as a meltdown, even if a reactor loses all power.
-- Whether the government has confirmed first-stage stress test results for the reactor regarding whether it can avoid a severe accident even if hit by a disaster as powerful as the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.
-- Whether the operator has submitted medium- and long-term safety enhancements.
All the nuclear power plants that operate the 48 reactors have met the first criteria, while stress tests have been conducted for 20 reactors, in addition to the two at Oi.
The industry ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) are supposed to double-check stress test results. However, NISA has approved only the results for the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture, which is expected to be reactivated following the Oi reactors.
The NSC, on the other hand, has been reluctant to review the stress test results for Ikata's No. 3 reactor, saying it is difficult for the organization to predict its future work because Diet deliberations have been delayed regarding a bill to create the nuclear regulatory commission.
At Saturday's press conference, Edano admitted the current nuclear regulatory system has not been working. "It's difficult to seek cooperation from the NSC," he said.
Have to wait till next summer?
The government plans to leave designing a new system to oversee nuclear reactors up to the new regulatory commission, which will be created as an "Article 3 commission" that is independent in terms of budgets and personnel, based on Article 3 of the National Government Organization Law.
A bill for launching the commission, which cleared the House of Representatives on Friday, requires the operational period of reactors to be limited to 40 years. It also introduces a so-called "backfit" rule requiring the utilization of the latest findings and technology for supervising reactors.
It will take about 10 months for the new commission to design concrete standards regarding new regulations stipulated by the bill. It is likely, therefore, that other reactors will not be restarted until next summer if these regulations are taken into consideration in deciding whether idle reactors can be reactivated.
The industry ministry is concerned over possible power supply shortages for this winter, mainly in Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s service area, if the reactivation of other idle reactors is delayed. Therefore, it hopes operations will be resumed as soon as possible for the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido and the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture.
NISA is reviewing the stress test results for these reactors.
"The government could work with current stress tests and other provisional standards until the new regulations [stipulated by the bill on establishing the new regulatory commission] are implemented," an industry ministry official said.
A government official in charge of establishing the new commission, however, was skeptical.
"If we hasten procedures [on reactor restarts], the public's confidence in the new regulatory commission will be lost, just like it has been with NISA," he said.
In fact, some local governments around the Oi plant have criticized the current safety standards.