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Problem with utilities' awareness of own responsibility for nuke safety

January 20, 2013


Power suppliers, individuals should be responsible for ensuring safety of nuclear plants



The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that regained control of the government following its landslide victory in the Dec. 16 House of Representatives election is set to overturn the previous administration's policy of ending Japan's reliance on nuclear power.

"Nuclear power reactors that will be built in the future are completely different from the old ones installed 40 years ago or those at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant where an accident occurred," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a TV program late last year.

His remarks could be interpreted as suggesting that his government is ready to approve the construction of new nuclear reactors on the grounds that they are safe.

It is true that aging nuclear reactors have higher risks, but one cannot help but wonder whether new reactors are absolutely safe.

In December last year, three people -- U.S., French and British nationals -- were appointed as international advisers to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and attended a meeting in Japan. The advice they gave as representatives of these countries that rely heavily on atomic power is noteworthy.

Andre-Claude Lacoste, former chairman of the French Nuclear Safety Authority, said he was shocked at the Japanese industry's attitude toward the safety of nuclear power. Specifically, the fact that officials of power suppliers simply repeated that they had strictly abided by relevant regulations came as a shock to him.

He pointed out that Japanese utilities' belief that it is all right as long as they simply follow the rules is dangerous.

The responsibility of the electric power industry for the safety of nuclear power plants tends to be obscured in Japan, where private companies have operated nuclear plants to supply a significant ratio of electric power in accordance with the government's energy policy. Under international standards, however, power suppliers are fully responsible for ensuring the safety of the nuclear plants they operate, as stipulated by the 10-point safety rules enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In Japan, the awareness of utilities' responsibility for nuclear safety is lacking even after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. There is no point in replacing nuclear reactors with the most advanced ones unless such awareness is changed.

Richard Meserve, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979 drastically changed the established view in the United States that the most important thing in nuclear plants was their design. This idea led to the belief that nuclear reactors are safe as long as they are new.

In the Unites States, nuclear plant operators have formed the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), in which member companies evaluate each other's safety measures. The president of the company whose nuclear safety measures are ranked lowest in the INPO's annual meeting is required to submit and explain improvement measures. In other words, INPO members take advantage of their concerns that they could be embarrassed in front of their fellow members to enhance safety measures.

Japanese power suppliers founded a similar organization called the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute, but the body was reorganized into a new entity last year after failing to fulfill its role. The new organization claims it is aiming to be the Japanese version of the INPO, but has failed to show its specific plan to achieve this goal.

Moreover, individual responsibility for the safety of nuclear plants is far more obscure in Japan than in other countries.

Mike Weightman, head of the U.K. Nuclear Directorate, proposed that the managers of atomic power stations be required to sign documents pledging that their facilities are absolutely safe as a precondition for reactivating idled nuclear reactors. If so, the managers cannot evade their responsibility for any accidents at their plant by claiming that they were strictly abiding by safety regulations.

The three experts agree that what matters is a culture of safety among nuclear plant operators. The LDP is partly responsible for failing to rectify -- and even contributing to flaws in the industry's safety culture as it was in power for decades.

After listening to advice from the three, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka suggested that idled nuclear reactors should not be reactivated unless the responsibility for safety among power suppliers and individual employees is clarified.

"The safety of nuclear plants in Japan is dissatisfactory in light of the need for individual employees in charge at power suppliers to fulfill their responsibilities to consider the matter and for their management to support their efforts. This is my personal view, but operations at idled nuclear reactors may not be allowed to be resumed unless the nation has confidence in their safety," he said. (By Yuri Aono, Expert Senior Writer)


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