JAPAN | Doubts emerge over gov’t plan to assess safety of nuclear power plants in two stages

Posted on July 12, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 12 July 2011

The government’s plan to assess the safety of nuclear power plants in two stages based on the results of its so-called stress tests on them is difficult to understand in the eyes of members of the general public.

Under the plan, the government will conduct the first-stage assessment of nuclear reactors that are undergoing regular inspections and the second-stage assessment of reactors in operation.

Stress tests are conducted on nuclear reactors to see how far they can withstand disasters and accidents beyond the scope of assumption made when they were designed — like the massive tsunami triggered by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. Therefore, the same safety standards should basically apply to both reactors undergoing regular inspections and those in operation.

There had been differences within the government over whether the safety assessment should be made a precondition for restarting nuclear reactors. The government’s coordinated view on the issue it has just announced appears to be just a compromise plan that takes into consideration conflicting opinions. Therefore, it could give the public the impression that the government will conduct the first-stage assessment in order to ensure operations at nuclear reactors suspended for regular inspections will be resumed.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has argued that the first-stage assessment will never be simpler than the second-stage assessment, but he is required to provide a more specific explanation to avoid inviting mistrust from the public.

In this March 11, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., waves of tsunami come toward tanks of heavy oil for the Unit 5 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

In this March 11, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., waves of tsunami come toward tanks of heavy oil for the Unit 5 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

According to the government’s plan, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) will examine the appropriateness of the selection of check items and the results of the assessment carried out by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA).

The public’s confidence in NISA, which belongs to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, has been badly damaged following the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Under the circumstances, an independent organization should thoroughly evaluate the assessment that NISA will conduct on nuclear reactors, and the NSC is supposed to play an important role to that end.

However, considering that the public’s confidence in the NSC has also been shaken, the government should study the possibility of giving the commission more independence and authority.

The results of stress tests conducted by the European Union are supposed to be cross-checked by experts in other countries. Japan should also consider having a team of experts including those from overseas examine the NISA assessment results.

It is worrisome that there is a perception gap between top government officials and the NSC over the role that the commission should play in evaluating the NISA assessment. While top government officials are eager to have NSC proactively involved in the evaluation process, the NSC intends to only confirm the appropriateness of the method that the NISA will employ in assessing the safety of nuclear reactors and the assessment results.

The government should be responsible for deciding whether to allow operations at nuclear reactors, suspended for regular inspections, to be resumed. However, the NSC should be proactively involved in providing data and evaluating NISA’s safety assessment, based on which the government will make such a decision.

In this March 11, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., waves of tsunami gush into a complex near the Unit 4 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

In this March 11, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co., waves of tsunami gush into a complex near the Unit 4 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

A balance between electric power supply and demand is an important factor in considering whether the two-stage assessment is appropriate. However, there are differences in views on the matter, with some saying that power suppliers have sufficient capacity to generate electric power consumed in Japan and others expressing fears that if the current situation continues, it will adversely affect the domestic industry.

One cannot help but wonder whether electric power companies have enough capacity to generate electric power to fill demand this summer, for the forthcoming winter and for summer next year, and whether there are enough privately-owned electric power generators in Japan to make up for the expected shortage of power. The government and relevant organizations should clearly show the current capacity of power supply in Japan depending on various conditions.

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