5 Juin 2017
June 5, 2017
EDITORIAL: Support of areas within 30-km zone vital for reactor restarts
Several more offline nuclear reactors are now on track to be restarted in the coming months despite lingering safety concerns among residents living in surrounding areas.
Kyushu Electric Power Co. plans to restart two reactors at its Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture as the prefecture’s governor and the mayor of Genkai, the town where the plant is located, gave their consent to the utility’s plan this spring.
Kansai Electric Power Co. is going through the process of restarting two reactors at its Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, which effectively passed the regulatory inspections by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in May. The company will now seek the approval of its plan by the Fukui governor and the mayor of Oi, the town hosting the plant.
Many local government chiefs and residents within 30 kilometers of these nuclear plants have voiced opposition to the planned reactor restarts. Local governments inside the 30-km zone are required to craft plans for the evacuation of local residents in the event of a serious nuclear accident.
But the electric utilities have turned a deaf ear to their voices. That’s because the operators of nuclear plants only ask for the approval of the host municipalities and prefectures when they seek to bring offline reactors back on stream.
If reactors are brought back online through the same procedures as those used before the catastrophic accident that hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, it will be difficult for people living in areas around nuclear plants not to feel anxiety.
We strongly urge the operators of nuclear plants to widen the definition of the “local communities” involved in the approval process so that at least the entire 30-km zone is covered.
NO DIFFERENCE IN DAMAGE CAUSED BY NUCLEAR ACCIDENT
There is no legal basis for the rights of the host local governments to approve plans to operate nuclear power plants. They are mainly based on safety agreements between the local governments and the plant operators, which include a provision concerning “advance consent” by the local governments.
Last summer, Yoshikazu Tsukabe, mayor of Imari, a city of 55,000 located within 30 km of the Genkai plant, unequivocally expressed his opposition to Kyushu Electric Power’s plan to bring the reactors back online.
When Tsukabe visited Minami-Soma, a city in Fukushima Prefecture within 30 km of the crippled Fukushima plant, in 2013, it hit home to him that there is no difference in the seriousness of damage that the host municipalities and areas around them would suffer when a major nuclear accident occurs.
Then, Tsukabe asked Kyushu Electric Power to conclude a safety agreement with Imari including an advance consent provision similar to the ones it has with the host municipalities. But the company refused his request.
“No matter how strongly we oppose (the utility’s plan to restart the reactors), we are left out in the cold,” Tsukabe says.
“But we are nevertheless forced to face the risk of a serious accident. That’s too unfair,” he adds indignantly.
The mayors of three cities in Nagasaki Prefecture, which are located near the Genkai plant, have also voiced their opposition to the utility’s plan. But even the governor of the neighboring prefecture has no right to grant consent to such a plan.
Since 2015, reactors at the Sendai (Kagoshima Prefecture), Ikata (Ehime Prefecture) and Takahama (Fukui Prefecture) have been restarted only with the consent of the host municipalities and prefectures.
Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, which are adjacent to Fukui Prefecture, have been demanding that they, too, be involved in the process of local approval.
The city of Hakodate, Hokkaido, has filed a lawsuit seeking a court injunction to stop the ongoing construction of the Oma nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture, which is located 23 km from the city across the sea. The suit effectively asks why an area near a nuclear power plant that could be damaged if an accident occurs at the plant is not regarded as a concerned “local community.”
VIGILANT LOCAL COMMUNITIES FOR BETTER SAFETY
Asahi Shimbun editorials have called for widening the scope of the local communities that have the right to grant consent to plans to restart nuclear reactors. That’s because we believe that the safety of nuclear reactors would improve if more local governments are involved in their safety checks as part of the consent process. That would also boost local residents’ confidence in the safety of the reactors in their areas.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has argued that the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s inspections are enough to confirm the safety of reactors. The administration claims the nuclear watchdog checks the safety of reactors according to the strictest nuclear regulatory standards in the world.
But Japan’s new nuclear safety standards, introduced after the Fukushima disaster, cover only four of the five levels of “defense in depth” advocated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The fifth level is mitigation of the radiological consequences of off-site releases of radioactive materials.
It is, so to speak, the last line of defense against a full-scale nuclear disaster in the event of failure of the four preceding levels of defense resulting in massive releases of radioactive materials into the environment. Specifically, it involves evacuating local residents to protect them from exposure to radiation.
Following the accident at the Fukushima plant, the central government made it mandatory for local governments inside the 30-km zone to develop plans for the emergency evacuation of local residents in such situations.
If so, the local governments should be given the right to call a stop to a plan to restart a reactor. They should be allowed to take the step when, instead of relying totally on the central government for confirming the safety of the reactor, decide that the safety of the reactor in question and the effectiveness of the evacuation plan are not sufficiently ensured.
Making such a decision requires expertise. It would help to set up a task force of experts as Niigata Prefecture has done. The prefectural government has been making its own efforts to investigate the Fukushima nuclear disaster with the help of experts.
DIET SHOULD DISCUSS THE ISSUE
Most local governments hosting nuclear power plants take a dim view of the proposal to widen the scope of the local approval program.
The host local governments have been receiving great fiscal and economic benefits from having nuclear plants, including state subsidies based on three laws related to power sources and job creation.
These prefectures and municipalities are concerned that an increase in the number of local governments with the right of consent would make it harder to operate reactors.
Toshiyuki Kanai, a professor at the University of Tokyo specializing in local government operations, argues that the original aims of safety agreements between utilities and local governments should be recalled.
In the 1960s, local governments hosting nuclear plants started seeking safety agreements with the plant operators to prevent them from concealing information about accidents and problems. In these moves, they tried to enhance local residents’ safety and sense of security by ensuring their own right to get the operators to listen to what they have to say, if necessary.
“If there is a local government concerned about the safety of a reactor, a wide range of local communities around it should join together to have discussions on the source of the concern,” says Kanai. “That would also help the host local government.”
Kanai points to the need to establish a system that ensures there is no difference in the benefits host local governments receive whether the reactors are operating or not. This is necessary for allowing host local governments to make neutral judgments about the safety of reactors.
It is the duty of the central government to devise such a system.
The Abe administration has been staying away from the issue of local consent. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko has said the scope of the local governments allowed to give their consent to reactor plans should not be uniformly determined by the central government.
But the administration should not continue neglecting the rift between the two sides--nuclear plant operators and the host local governments versus local governments in surrounding areas. It should not simply let utilities restart reactors without paying serious attention to objections from surrounding local governments.
There are possible ways to deal with the issue, including legally requiring utilities to obtain the consent of all local governments within the 30-km zone as a condition for restarting a reactor.
Six years after the Fukushima calamity, the Diet should start a serious debate on the issue as one of the important challenges concerning nuclear safety that has remained unaddressed.