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April 8, 2012


Govt to monitor reactor safety measures



As the government has decided on new nuclear reactor safety standards, power companies will now be required to implement further safety improvement measures.

Meanwhile, local governments are trying to gauge how committed the central government is to quickly securing a stable electricity supply.

The central government will monitor whether power companies have implemented safety measures to prevent a crisis similar to the one that occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11, 2011, disaster. Companies must also commit to implementing further steps as soon as possible, according to the new safety standards.

With an eye on reactivating the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, the government approved the safety standards at a meeting Friday attended by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three other Cabinet ministers in charge of nuclear policy.

The safety confirmation standards consist of two stages.

The first stage is divided into two sections:

-- Emergency measures to prevent a worse situation even if a reactor loses all power. This section consists of 16 checkpoints in four categories.

-- Government confirmation of stress test results for the reactor regarding whether it can maintain cooling functions to prevent a meltdown even if it is hit by a disaster as powerful as the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.

The emergency measures were decided by the central government, following the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The second stage relates to operators' commitment to medium- and long-term safety enhancements.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano emphasized the significance of the safety criteria during a press conference Friday night at the Prime Minister's Office following the four-minister meeting.

"We don't want another nuclear crisis like the one at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant--that's the starting point of the standards," he said.

The safety standards were established based on 30 points devised in March by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The 30 items, however, covered emergency measures the government instructed operators to implement immediately after the Fukushima crisis, as well as initial assessments of stress tests, which focused on whether nuclear reactors can withstand quakes or tsunami larger than predicted.

Some experts, therefore, consider the safety criteria as "hastily compiled measures that don't include anything new."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura countered such criticism.

"That's a misunderstanding," he said. "They have been made based on the accumulation of our knowledge and findings since the nuclear crisis started."

In deciding whether to resume operations of suspended reactors, the safety standards require the prime minister and three others in charge of nuclear policy to verify the measures nuclear plant operators have taken.

In the case of Oi's Nos. 3 and 4 reactors, operator KEPCO has set up emergency generators on high ground and installed alternate seawater pump facilities.

In addition to the verification of completed safety measures, the new standards require plant operators to submit timetables on concrete steps they will take to implement measures among the list of 30 items and remedy problems discovered through stress tests.

Future safety measures included in the safety criteria have been modeled after measures already implemented overseas to prevent nuclear crises, citing the 1979 Three Mile Island incident and others.

NISA will judge the measures taken by utility firms, while the four ministers will later confirm the agency's judgment, according to the standards.

KEPCO has already announced a schedule for building necessary facilities aside from reactor buildings at the Oi nuclear plant--for example, a quake-resistant building to house an emergency headquarters to be built by fiscal 2016.

On the other hand, the utility did not indicate when it will carry out other long-term measures, such as setting up filtered ventilation equipment for reactors, to suppress radioactive material from being discharged into the atmosphere in a severe incident.

Nonetheless, a KEPCO official said the utility will submit a timetable for the two Oi reactors as early as this week.

"We've been examining [when these steps can be taken]," he said. "It won't take long for us to sort out the issues."

The new safety standards have been devised at the urging of Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who asked that the government not only require nuclear power plant operators to conduct stress tests, but also compile provisional criteria based on the Fukushima crisis.

The standards are expected to be studied for legal enforcement following the planned launch of a nuclear regulatory agency, according to government officials.

Even if suspended reactors receive permission for reactivation based on the safety standards, the government will need to reassure nearby residents with careful explanations so that they can accept the criteria, experts pointed out.

It must do this because there will be many steps left to be implemented even after suspended reactors are reactivated, they said.

In other words, they added, people will question whether the government can properly assess plant safety measures, which used to be the utilities' responsibility.

"We [four ministers] would like to explain to the public what experts have decided in an easy-to-understand way," Edano said.


Summer shortage looms

With the Noda administration's decision on new guidelines to confirm the safety of nuclear power reactors, the process of restarting the reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture has taken a step forward.

The administration regards a stable power supply this summer as the highest priority. For this reason, it has been aiming to restart the reactors by May 5, when the No. 3 reactor at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s Tomari nuclear power plant--the last reactor operating in Japan--will be suspended for regular inspections.

If none of the nation's reactors are online, "the hurdle to restarting the reactors [at the Oi plant] will become higher," a government source said.

Edano had been particularly optimistic about the resumption of the reactors' operations.

"If we can obtain the understanding from localities [hosting nuclear plants], we'll restart [operations] depending on the power demand-supply situation," he said.

However, Edano's recent comments suggest that his stance has changed. At a House of Councillors Budget Committee session Monday, he said, "At this point, I'm against the resumption [of the idle reactors at the Oi plant]."

Edano said consent would be needed from governors of neighboring Shiga and Kyoto prefectures. The apparently contradictory remarks have sparked controversy.

He then said at a press conference after a regular Cabinet meeting Friday, "If sufficient power supply is guaranteed, it won't be necessary to resume operations [of idled reactors]."

Parties concerned believe Edano was indicating the possibility that some nuclear power reactors would not resume operations.

Asked why Edano's remarks were so divergent, a Cabinet minister said, "We intended to have Mr. Edano keep power utilities in check, since they may lag in implementing reforms and cutting costs if they believe the reactors will be restarted anyway."

If the Oi reactors are confirmed safe to operate at a meeting of ministers related to nuclear safety, to be resumed as early as Monday, Edano is expected to visit Fukui Prefecture to secure the consent of the local government.

However, Edano's contrary remarks have brought "side effects," stoking suspicions among concerned parties in Fukui Prefecture toward the central government's position.

Hakuei Ishizuka, the head of the public safety and environment department at the Fukui prefectural government, on Friday refrained from talking about the government's new safety confirmation standards.

"We can't comment because the central government is still in the middle of the decision making process," he said.

However, Oi Mayor Shinobu Tokioka criticized the central government over the process.

"It should explain the significance and need for nuclear plants before creating standards," he said. "They're doing things backward."

Fujimura said at a press conference Friday, "From a legal perspective, there is no need to obtain consent [of the local governments]."

Although Fujimura emphasized that the central government takes full responsibility for settling the reactivation issue, prospects for restarting reactors remain unclear.

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