JAPAN | Discussion on nuclear safety still lacking after Fukushima crisis

Posted on July 1, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 1 July 2011

In this March 20, 2011 aerial file photo taken by a small unmanned drone and released by Air Photo Service, the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Okumamachi, Fukushima prefecture. From top to bottom: Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3 and Unit 4.  (AP Photo/Air Photo Service)

Has anything actually changed since the outbreak of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima? When looking at the way the government and local bodies are handling the restarting of reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai Nuclear Power Plant, we can’t help but wonder.

Recently Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda visited Saga Prefecture, where the Genkai nuclear plant is located, and asked Saga Gov. Yasushi Furukawa and Genkai Mayor Hideo Kishimoto to restart reactors at the plant. The governor has given his approval, saying that safety has been cleared. The mayor holds the same view.

But the grounds for allowing the reactors to be restarted are based on a stopgap measure: placing power-supply vehicles on standby. Though Japan is experiencing a nuclear crisis, the government has not revised its earthquake-resistance guidelines or guidelines for reactor design safety inspections, or presented any other post-Fukushima safety standards including the handling of aging reactors.

All over Japan, local bodies hosting nuclear power plants face issues surrounding the restarting of reactors. Naturally, decisions on whether to operate the reactors must be made case by case. But it is possible that the Genkai case could become a model for the future. It is no good to make snap decisions while leaving fundamental post-Fukushima safety standards obscured. Even if it takes some time for guidelines to be revised, the relevant concerns must be addressed.

One reason for the undermined trust in nuclear safety is the relationship between the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The unhealthy situation in which NISA, a regulatory body, belongs to the ministry, which promotes nuclear power, has been brought up many times in the past, and even the International Atomic Energy Agency has sought improvement to the situation. The government acknowledges the situation and has included plans to make NISA independent in a report on the crisis prepared for the IAEA.

But in spite of this, NISA has given a stamp of approval to the safety nuclear reactors — one that is not limited to reactors at the Genkai plant — and the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry is using this to make requests to local bodies. Furthermore, NISA itself has visited local bodies asking them to restart their reactors.

In this photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), gray smoke rises from Unit 3 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

In this photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), gray smoke rises from Unit 3 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

No clear view has yet emerged from Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, which should be confirming the safety of nuclear power plants from its independent position. Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame has stated that he doesn’t know whether nuclear power plant safety has increased on the whole in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. One suggested safety measure is using electric drills to bore holes in the ceiling of the reactor building to prevent a hydrogen explosion. The viability of such a measure is doubtful.

NISA should comprehensively examine the short-term safety measures and determine how far the risks have actually been lowered. The Nuclear Safety Commission should then evaluate this assessment from its independent position. Surely this is the least they could do.

The crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant has taught us that a nuclear disaster does not impact only the municipality where the nuclear plant stands, but a wide area. It is only natural for neighboring local bodies and their residents to worry about nuclear accidents. The government must gather up a large scope of opinions and do its utmost to explain its stand.

The Fukushima crisis has destroyed the myth of nuclear power plant safety. We now need procedures and debate to put the lessons learned from the crisis into practice.

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