14 Mars 2013
March 13, 2013
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has begun working out standards for allowing the extension of the use of nuclear reactors as an exception to the 40-year limit that was amended in June last year. The authority should work out strict standards that will ensure that the 40-year rule will be effective.
The Mainichi has urged the government to reduce Japan's reliance on atomic power since the outbreak of the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011. Many members of the public also apparently want the government to cut down the country's dependence on nuclear plants. Therefore, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which won the Dec. 16 House of Representatives election and regained control of the government, pledged during the campaign to seek to establish an economic and social structure that will not need to rely on atomic power.
The 40-year limit on the use of nuclear reactors, which the previous administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) originally pursued, is an important principle to achieve this goal. However, the use of reactors in operation for 40 years can be extended by up to 20 years on condition that they meet standards set by the NRA.
The government must keep in mind that such an extension is an exceptional measure. The 40-year limit as well as the requirements that the latest safety standards apply to existing nuclear reactors is an important pillar of measures to ensure the safety of nuclear reactors.
Nuclear reactors age after being in operation for many years. Nuclear reactor pressure vessels, which are the cores of nuclear reactors, become fragile as they are exposed to neutrons generated through nuclear fission, and piping through which high-temperature, high-pressure water flows become gradually deteriorated. In Japan, there are 17 nuclear reactors that have been in operation for more than 30 years and three of them have been in use for over 40 years.
NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said the 40-year limit on the use of nuclear reactors is reasonable saying, "I'm aware that the 40th year is a key moment."
The authority set up expert teams to draw up new safety standards for nuclear reactors and specific measures to cope with nuclear disasters, and opened their deliberations to the public. However, the NRA and its secretariat will work out standards for permitting the extension of the use of nuclear reactors beyond 40 years as exceptional measures without public discussion. The move is extremely regrettable all the more because the NRA has so far tried to ensure transparency of its discussions on nuclear power plant safety measures.
The NRA explains that it has accumulated enough expertise on preventing nuclear reactors from aging and the use of reactors can be extended beyond the 40-year limit on condition that they meet the latest safety standards as the reasons for not having public discussion. The panel also emphasized that such public debate is unnecessary because it is not discussing technical criteria from scratch and will make a final decision after soliciting opinions from the public.
However, the NRA's reluctance to hold public discussion has raised doubts over its attitude as well as over its proposed system to ensure the safety of nuclear reactors. The panel is required to draw up the standards by July -- when the revised Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors comes into force. It would be inappropriate if the NRA had avoided public discussion because there is not enough time.
The NRA's Tanaka told officials of its secretariat on March 11, "The consequences of the nuclear accident are extremely grave. I would like to promise to make the NRA an organization that can win the confidence of the public so that no nuclear plant accident will happen again."
Ensuring transparency should be the top priority in efforts to win public confidence.