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Military flights and nuclear plants

September 14, 2013

Demands grow for ban on U.S. military flights near nuclear plants




With memories rekindled of a deadly U.S. helicopter crash 25 years ago, Ehime Prefecture is increasing its demands for a ban on all U.S. military flights above or near the Ikata nuclear power plant.

The screening process is under way on Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s application to restart the No. 3 reactor at the plant. But a recent sighting of a U.S. military aircraft flying near the nuclear plant has residents and politicians worried about a possible disaster from the skies.

“Flights above nuclear power plants are dangerous,” Ehime Governor Tokihiro Nakamura said. "We want the U.S. forces to follow the rules.”

Nakamura made the remark at a news conference on Aug. 9, four days after a U.S. military helicopter from the Kadena Air Base crashed in Camp Hansen in Okinawa Prefecture.

Although a 1999 Japan-U.S. agreement states that U.S. military aircraft should avoid areas near nuclear power-related facilities and commercial airports, critics say U.S. forces have been lax on following the rules.

Nakamura said he had requested legislation for a flight ban even before the Okinawa accident.

“It is an important issue for the safety of residents in my prefecture,” he said.

Flights between the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture and the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture include part of the skies over the Shikoku region, where Ehime Prefecture is located.

Ehime Prefecture officials are also concerned about the U.S. military’s “Orange Route” flight training course over the region.

Much has been made of the struggles of Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government to end the crisis at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

But adding to the fears in Ehime Prefecture is the deployment in Okinawa Prefecture of the U.S. Osprey, a transport aircraft with a spotty safety record. Just last month, an Osprey crashed near a U.S. base in Nevada and burst into flames. None of the crew members were injured.

In March, Osprey started low-altitude flight training in Japan. Several sightings of the aircraft in Ehime Prefecture prompted the prefectural government to ask the central government to require U.S. forces to strictly adhere to the Japan-U.S. agreement.

But on March 30, immediately after the request, a U.S. P-3C surveillance plane was seen in the skies near the Ikata power plant.

For local residents, it was an unpleasant reminder of what took place on June 25, 1988.

On that day, a large U.S. military helicopter crashed into a mountain about 1 kilometer from the Ikata nuclear plant, killing all seven crew members.

“If a U.S. military plane crashed into the nuclear plant and radioactive materials leaked from the facility, I will not be able to live in my house anymore,” said a 61-year-old woman whose home is located 3 kilometers from the Ikata plant. “At the very least, I hope that U.S. aircraft do not fly over the nuclear plant.”

The Ikata plant is not the only nuclear facility where U.S. military aircraft have been seen.

In a meeting of the Lower House Committee on Economy, Trade and Industry in June, the government said it confirmed seven cases since fiscal 2007 in which U.S. military aircraft flew over nuclear power-related facilities.

They included the Higashidori nuclear plant in Aomori Prefecture operated by Tohoku Electric Power Co. and the Ningyo-toge Environmental Engineering Center in Okayama Prefecture run by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

New regulations for nuclear power plants that took effect in July require electric power companies to establish a secondary control room that can remotely control nuclear reactors in the event of a terrorist attack using aircraft.

However, utilities have a grace period of five years to implement the plan. Shikoku Electric Power estimates the occurrence rate of an aircraft accident hitting a reactor at the Ikata plant is less than once every 10 million years.

A Shikoku Electric Power official said such an accident would not seriously damage the reactors because they are protected by concrete walls more than 80 centimeters thick and by steel containment vessels with a thickness of about 40 centimeters.

Nobuo Komoda, head of a lawyers’ group calling for the suspension of operations at the Ikata nuclear plant, disagrees with Shikoku Electric Power’s assessment.

“That view is problematic because studies have not progressed in Japan on possible aircraft crashes on nuclear power plants,” he said. “The new regulations require electric power companies to establish a secondary control room. But I cannot believe that cooling the reactors from a remote-control room alone can prevent leakage of radioactive materials in the event of an aircraft crash.”

Komoda said the secondary control room requirement is insufficient.

In the Kyushu region, screening has also started on applications to restart four reactors at the Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture and the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Kyushu Electric Power Co., the operator of those plants, also said the occurrence rate of an accidental aircraft crash on a reactor is less than once every 10 million years.

“We have already confirmed that our measures (to prepare for possible crashes) meet the conditions set by the new regulation standards,” said a Kyushu Electric Power public relations officer.

As for the establishment of the secondary control room, “We are now seriously considering it,” the official added.

The U.S. military’s “Yellow Route” flight training course takes aircraft over Kyushu, although the route does not extend over the two nuclear plants. U.S. forces had previously planned to use the Yellow Route for low-altitude training of the Osprey aircraft.

(This article was compiled from the reports by Teru Okumura, Satoshi Otani and Yo Noguchi.)

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