Editorial: Sendai nuclear power plant meets new safety standards

Still at first stage

The Nuclear Regulation Authority has completed a draft of the results of its safety screening of the No. 1 and 2 reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant aimed at the resumption of operations there. The plant, which is operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co., is located in Satsumasendai in Kagoshima Prefecture. Some procedures remain to be carried out, but it appears certain that Sendai will be the first plant to meet the new safety requirements.

However, the fact that the plant has passed the screening is no guarantee that no accident will occur. And at this point concern about whether local residents can be smoothly evacuated in an emergency cannot be dispelled.

It is high-handed for the government and the power company to plan to arrange matters on the assumption that the plant will resume operations in the fall. They must start by clearly explaining to the public the basis for this recent decision.

Some aspects of the NRA’s decision are puzzling.

First of all, the risk of volcanic activity is higher at Sendai than at any other nuclear power plant in Japan. Kyushu Power has said the likelihood of the disruption of plant operations by a pyroclastic flow as the result of the major eruption of a nearby volcano is “sufficiently small,” and the NRA echoed this belief.

But there is no sign that they have carefully reviewed the dissenting opinions of experts on volcanoes. This represents the revival of the “myth of safety” that was supposed to have been put to rest following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

The plant’s facilities to prepare for an accident are also inadequate. For example, the earthquake-proof control tower to be used in an emergency is not expected to be completed until fiscal year 2015. The power company has said it will make do with an alternate facility situated on a hill until then, but with floor space of only 180 square meters, it is small. It is doubtful that the facility will be able to accommodate the necessary employees in the event of an emergency.

The pressurized water reactors in Sendai are structurally different from the boiling water reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, and their containment vessels are large. For this reason, there is a five-year grace period for pressurized water reactors on the installation of filtered vents intended to limit the release of radioactive materials at the time of an accident. In the case of the Sendai plant, this work is not expected to be completed until fiscal 2016.

But a natural disaster won’t wait until critical equipment is ready. The NRA should have taken more time for deliberation and considered its decision more carefully before certifying the No. 1 reactor as safe.

Concern remains about the evacuation of local residents as well. The plan prepared by Kagoshima Prefecture puts priority on the evacuation of residents within a 5 km radius of the plant, while those residing within a radius of 5 to 30 km from the plant will apparently merely be urged to remain indoors. But in a panic will they really be able to do so?

Local governments are required to prepare evacuation plans for residents, but these plans are not subject to review by the NRA. The next step is ensuring that not only Sendai residents but residents of towns with nuclear plants throughout Japan gain a better understanding of their evacuation plans through ordinary drills.

Those communities will soon be faced with a decision on whether or not to permit the restart of their nuclear plants. Once an accident occurs it will affect a wide area. In view of that, this is not a matter that can be decided solely by the communities in which the plants are located. It would make sense for Kagoshima Prefecture to gather the opinions of all the local governments in the prefecture.

Meanwhile, the central government’s poorly defined involvement is beyond our comprehension. With regard to the restart of the nuclear power plants, the Strategic Energy Plan approved by the Cabinet in April states: “In this case, the government of Japan will make best efforts to obtain the understanding and cooperation of relevant parties including host municipalities.” But this doesn’t seem to imply that the government will assume final responsibility. If the government expects to foist responsibility on local communities and the power company alone, that is completely unacceptable.

Public opinion on energy policy remains divided. Under these circumstances, there will inevitably be criticism of this excessively hasty move to restart the nuclear power plants. There must be thorough national debate under the assumption that operations will not resume at least until the ventilation system has been installed.

(Originally published on July 17, 2014)