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New standards only minimum requirements to be met by utilities

June 20, 2013


Editorial: Regulator must thoroughly examine nuclear reactors amid new safety standards






The government's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has adopted new safety standards for nuclear power stations, mandating electric power companies to strengthen measures to prevent serious accidents such as that which befell the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

The NRA standards, which require that nuclear power complexes be protected from earthquakes and tsunami, also apply to existing nuclear reactors. The standards will take effect on July 8, following endorsement at a Cabinet meeting. Electric power companies that are eager to reactivate their idled nuclear plants are expected to file inspection applications with the NRA immediately after this time in order to see if their reactors meet the new standards.

"We have established a solid system that meets international standards," commented NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka. However, the new system can only function properly if the NRA undertakes strict inspections of the nuclear reactors. The NRA's ability to ensure the safety of nuclear power will be put to the test.

Tanaka explained that the NRA will strictly examine the safety of nuclear power stations, regardless of how much it will cost their operations to implement safety measures. Such a statement is only natural.

In order to secure transparency, the process of inspections for each reactor must be fully disclosed. In addition, power companies should keep in mind that they must make voluntary efforts to enhance safety at nuclear plants, since the new standards represent only the minimum requirements that they must meet.

In enforcing the new standards, the NRA and its secretariat have decided to set up three safety inspection teams staffed by about 80 examiners. The secretariat estimates that it will take at least half a year to examine each nuclear plant.

Nevertheless, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi has recently said that idled nuclear reactors will likely be reactivated as early as this coming autumn. The growth strategy adopted by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly states that the government will resume operations at nuclear power stations whose safety has been confirmed in light of the new standards. Electric power companies have expressed hope that safety inspections on nuclear reactors will be conducted efficiently -- with both the government and power suppliers appearing to desire reactivation of the nuclear plants as soon as possible.

Chairman Tanaka has said that the NRA will consider ways to streamline the operations of the inspection teams. If inspectors place too much emphasis on efficiency and overlook problems with reactors, however, the authority will have completely reversed the priorities at hand.

The NRA has fundamentally reviewed existing safety standards in developing the new regulations. Presently, the authority is examining the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture -- the sole reactors now operating in Japan -- to see if they meet the new standards prior to their enforcement.

It should be remembered, however, that it took several years to examine the safety of newly installed nuclear plants under the existing standards -- and the new regulations have more inspection items than the existing standards, even with respect to reactors that are already in operation. Clearly, the NRA should place priority on ensuring safety over efficiency.

It also goes without saying that preconditions for reactivating idled nuclear power stations must include the acquisition of consent from local communities hosting nuclear plants, as well as the drawing up of regional disaster-prevention plans by local government bodies.

The enforcement of the new safety standards marks the beginning of an era when nuclear plants that do not meet these strict safety standards must be immediately shut down. Such being the case, the Abe administration is required to work out a framework for decommissioning nuclear reactors both efficiently and rapidly.


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