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The strength of pro-nuclear lobbying

June 21, 2016


EDITORIAL: License renewal of aging reactors betrays promise, fuels concerns



The Nuclear Regulation Authority on June 20 approved 20-year operating extensions for two reactors at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, both of which had been in service for more than 40 years.

Kansai Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, plans to restart the No. 1 and the No. 2 reactors as early as autumn 2019 after taking the required additional safety measures.

Following the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, Asahi Shimbun editorials have been arguing for phasing out nuclear power generation in two to three decades.

We believe high-risk or aging reactors should be decommissioned while allowing the minimum number of necessary reactors to continue operations.

The NRA’s decision for the two aging reactors has raised serious concerns that license renewals could be approved for many reactors judged deemed capable of operating profitably by utilities. We are opposed to the decision.

One source of worry is the stance of the nuclear safety watchdog itself.

One challenge at the Takahama plant is making electric cables less vulnerable to fires. The NRA has accepted Kansai Electric Power’s plan to cover cables with a fire-resistant sheet in places where it is difficult to replace them with flame-retardant cables.

The NRA has also allowed the utility to delay required earthquake-resistance tests that involve the actual shaking of important equipment within the containment vessels of the reactors.

The regulator has given the go-ahead to the company’s plan to carry out such tests after taking the additional safety measures.

The licenses for reactor operations can be renewed only once for up to an additional 20 years. But this provision was introduced to prevent emergencies, such as serious power crunches.

The NRA itself described its permission for extended reactor operation as an “extremely exceptional” measure and “hard to obtain.”

An even more serious problem is the stance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government toward nuclear power generation.

In response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Democratic Party of Japan-led government revised the law to set 40 years as the lifespan of nuclear reactors.

The revision was made amid broad public consensus on lowering the nation’s dependence on nuclear power.

Initially, the Abe government, inaugurated in December 2012, also repeatedly promised to reduce Japan’s dependence on nuclear power generation as much as possible.

But the Abe administration has since gradually switched its position to maintaining nuclear power generation. It has even designated nuclear power as one of the core energy sources for the nation.

The administration’s recent refrain is: “Reactors that have been judged safe by the NRA will be restarted.”

The NRA, for its part, emphasizes that its mandate is limited to assessing the safety of individual reactors. The existence of an appropriate and workable evacuation plan is not a factor checked in the watchdog’s safety inspections.

The NRA has also avoided directly addressing the risks involved in the concentration of nuclear power plants in certain regions, such as Fukui Prefecture, where the Takahama plant is located.

In March, the Otsu District Court issued an injunction to suspend operations of the No. 3 and the No. 4 reactors at the Takahama plant, which had just been restarted.

The court’s decision reflects one important lesson from the Fukushima meltdowns: One key factor behind the accident was the tradition of leaving policy decisions about nuclear power regulation entirely to experts.

The revision to the law to establish the 40-year legal lifespan for nuclear reactors was based on an agreement among the DPJ, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, now the ruling party, and the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito.

The government must not be allowed to betray its promise to the public to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power while using the NRA as a cover to obscure its policy shift.

The Abe administration should offer a clear and detailed explanation about its position on the 40-year life rule.



INSIGHT: 40-year safety principle erodes in pro-nuclear lobbying




Cries of disapproval rang out from the spectators’ gallery when Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), announced the decision to allow two aging reactors to continue running for 20 more years.

“Don’t you know that the operating period is 40 years, in principle?” someone shouted at Tanaka at the NRA meeting on June 20.

In the name of safety, the law on nuclear reactor regulations was revised after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to limit the operating period of a reactor to 40 years, in principle. The idea was to phase out old reactors because of the difficulties in taking safety measures for such aging equipment.

When Tanaka assumed the post of NRA chairman in September 2012, he said at a news conference, “The designs (of reactors) of 40 years ago are insufficient to maintain their safety.”

But through lobbying by pro-nuclear politicians, this 40-year cutoff point is now seen as the time when utilities should seek approval for extending their reactor operations.

The NRA even gave special treatment to Kansai Electric Power Co. in its application for the 20-year operating extensions of the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. These two reactors have already been in operation for 40 years.

When the law was revised, a stipulation was added over concerns that a continued decommissioning of 40-year-old reactors could lead to a shortage of electricity in Japan. The stipulation said the operating period of 40 years can be extended by up to 20 years--only once--if the NRA approves.

It was designed as an emergency measure against a possible energy crunch.

Then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government said, “The extension is limited only to exceptional cases.”

However, the safety principle behind the law started to erode after the Liberal Democratic Party regained control of the government in December 2012.

At a Cabinet meeting in 2014, the LDP-led government decided on a basic energy plan, which read, “Nuclear power is an important baseload electricity source.”

In summer 2015, the economy ministry said nuclear power will account for 20 percent to 22 percent of total electricity generation in fiscal 2030.

To achieve those percentage figures, operations of at least 10 nuclear reactors had to be extended because of the difficulties in building new reactors, expanding their power generation capabilities or replacing old reactors with new ones.

Under such circumstances, Kansai Electric Power applied to the NRA in April 2015 for extended operations of the Takahama plant’s No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, whose operations started in 1974 and 1975, respectively.

Members of the LDP’s project team and local government leaders pushed for the extensions. They asserted that they could not accept the decommissioning of two reactors just because the 40-year operation period has run out.

The NRA initially pushed back, saying it could halt the safety screenings of the two reactors, one of which was already more than 40 years old.

Yet the lobbying continued, and the NRA ended up putting top priority on the screenings.

During the screenings, Kansai Electric Power was given preferential treatment. For example, the NRA said that required quake-resistance tests on important reactor equipment can be done after the utility completes its construction work.

The NRA’s approval came 14 months after Kansai Electric Power submitted the application for the extensions.

Tadahiro Katsuta, associate professor of nuclear power policies at Meiji University, suggested that these supposed “exceptional cases” could become the norm.

“Unpredictable problems could take place (at nuclear power plants). That’s why the principle of 40 years was decided as a safety standard to protect human lives,” Katsuta said. “But ‘40 years’ has now become just a term on when to obtain approval for an extension of reactor operations.”

One critic in the gallery at the June 20 meeting mentioned legal action against the NRA’s decision.

“(Even if the extension is approved,) the operation will be suspended again by a court,” the critic yelled.

At a news conference held later, Tanaka said: “Words such as ‘in principle’ or ‘exception’ are political messages. Society decides whether to decrease nuclear reactors or not.”


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