JAPAN | Nuclear regulator scandal may further delay restart of idled reactors

Posted on July 30, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 30 July 2011

The accusations of attempts by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to manipulate public opinion to favor “pluthermal” nuclear projects at government-sponsored symposiums held in 2006 and 2007 have further dented public confidence in Japan’ nuclear policy and may further delay the restart of idled nuclear reactors across the country.

They also show the problem with NISA, a nuclear regulatory body existing under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, which has been keen to pursue and promote nuclear power generation.

One symposium in question was held at Omaezaki’s Civil Hall in Shizuoka Prefecture on August 26, 2007 in which 524 people took part and 12 spoke. The symposium dealt with a “pluthermal” nuclear project for Chubu Electric Power Co. (CEPC). No one from the utility or its partner companies was among the people who presented their opinion, and none of the speakers spoke in favor of the project. Rather, they said things like “Pluthermal technology is still immature.” Behind the scenes, however, there is said to have been a request from NISA to stage the comments.

While disclosing the fact that there were “staged questions” prepared for the symposium, Shuichi Terada, head of the legal affairs department at the Chubu Electric headquarters, told a news conference on July 29, “I can’t tell you the name and the position (of the person who made the request).”

A third-party panel is set to investigate the NISA’s alleged involvement in the scandal. But according to Chubu Electric, the group head of the company’s nuclear power department received a verbal request in late July 2007 — one month before the symposium — to invite enough people to take part in the symposium to avoid vacant seats and to prepare questions to be raised by “local residents” in order to prevent opponents to the plan from asking all the questions.

The group head prepared questions both from affirmative and neutral positions, but senior company officials including a board member concluded that the questions were “problematic in terms of compliance (with corporate responsibility).” The utility firm verbally conveyed its decision to refuse to stage the event to NISA in early August 2007. For its part, NISA tacitly accepted the refusal, saying, “As the government, we cannot say anything more.” These events were not reported to the company president and other board members.

Chubu Electric President Akihisa Mizuno told a news conference on July 29, “We have merely reported the facts.” He strongly denied that his company has made the revelations in retaliation against the government for stopping the restart of reactors at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. But senior company officials appear to be deeply frustrated with the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan since the Hamaoka plant was shut down in May at his request.

Local residents in Omaezaki, which hosts the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, are losing trust in the government. Omaezaki mayor Shigeo Ishihara said, “I feel disgusted. NISA should straighten up.”

On July 4, 2007 — before the symposium was held — the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry gave permission to the utility firm to start pluthermal power generation at its No. 4 reactor at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. But on July 16, the Niigata-Chuetsu Earthquake struck, causing damage to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and sparking public fear over the safety of nuclear reactors in the event of a major earthquake. The symposium came into the spotlight because the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant sits right above the focal area of a possible major earthquake.

Pluthermal power generation, which uses plutonium and uranium mixed fuel in a normal reactor, is a main pillar of the nuclear program pursued by resource-poor Japan. Plutherman power generation was first introduced at the No. 3 reactor at the Genkai Nuclear Power Plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co. in 2009. It was later introduced at nuclear power plants operated by Shikoku Electric Power Co. (SEPCO), TEPCO, and Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO). The No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Plant, which was damaged by a hydrogen explosion, also used the fuel. The pluthermal project at the No. 4 reactor at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant has been delayed, due partly to problems occurring with pluthermal generation at nuclear plants around the country.

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