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NRA "too hasty" in giving OK to TEPCO

September 14, 2017


EDITORIAL: NRA too hasty in giving green light to TEPCO to restart reactors



Although the Nuclear Regulation Authority has decided to give the green light to Tokyo Electric Power Co. to restart nuclear reactors, we question the fitness of the utility, which is responsible for the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, to manage nuclear facilities.


The NRA has been screening TEPCO’s application to resume operations of the No. 6 and No. 7 boiling-water reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.

The NRA on Sept. 13 acknowledged with conditions that TEPCO is eligible for operating nuclear plants after examining the company's safety culture and other issues.


The nuclear safety watchdog said it will make TEPCO incorporate a written pledge by TEPCO President Tomoaki Kobayakawa to secure safe operations into its safety code. Kobayakawa promised to put higher priority on safety than on profitability. The NRA made clear it also has the power to order TEPCO to suspend its reactor operations or rescind the utility’s license if a serious violation is found.


Establishing an effective system to monitor the company’s nuclear power operations to ensure their safety is one thing. Assessing the utility’s fitness to operate reactors is another.


Why is the NRA in such a rush to make the decision when it still harbors doubts about TEPCO’s eligibility to operate nuclear reactors?


Was the move in any way driven by a desire on the part of Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA, to settle the issue by the end of his five-year term, which is due to expire soon?

It is hard to deny the impression that the NRA has unnecessarily rushed into the decision, as it is clearly premature.


A corporate safety culture usually deteriorates in a five-stage process--with each marked, respectively, by overconfidence, complacency, disregard, danger and collapse.


TEPCO’s safety culture was already collapsed before the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, as indicated by a series of scandals involving the company’s attempts to cover up safety problems and falsify data.


That’s how TEPCO itself summed up the root causes of the catastrophic accident in a report published in 2013.


In an attempt to fix its corporate culture, TEPCO established an oversight committee, which includes independent members and regularly receives reports from the management team.


The utility has also published a somewhat self-congratulatory report on the effectiveness of measures it has taken.


It was revealed only last year, however, that the company’s president at the time of the Fukushima accident told employees not to use the term “core meltdown” in describing what was unfolding.


It has also been disclosed that TEPCO had failed to inform the regulator that the earthquake resistance of a key facility at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was insufficient.


Only last month, it emerged that TEPCO had seriously delayed announcing that falling levels of underground water being pumped up at the Fukushima plant set off an alarm. The NRA bitterly criticized the delay, saying the suspicion that TEPCO was still in the habit of “covering up inconvenient facts and deceiving people” could not be avoided.


Why then, has the NRA concluded there is “no reason” to proclaim that TEPCO is unfit to operate nuclear reactors?


In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, many critics, both at home and abroad, pointed out that both the operators and regulators of nuclear plants in Japan focus too much on hardware, such as facilities and equipment.


All operators of nuclear plants in Japan, not just TEPCO, face the challenge of reforming the way they manage their organizations as well as the mind-set among their employees in order to foster and firmly establish a safety culture.


Even the more stringent reactor regulations imposed by the NRA after the triple meltdown in 2011 are not effective enough in this respect.


Evaluating a utility’s fitness to operate nuclear plants is a new task for the NRA.

A special task force set up by the body started working on the criteria and procedures for such evaluations in July. The team is expected to produce an interim report on its work by the end of the year.


Here’s how the NRA should tackle this challenge. It should first establish effective guidelines for eligibility assessments. Then, it should apply the guidelines to the screening of specific plans to restart reactors to ensure that a solid safety culture underpins the operations of all nuclear reactors.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 14



Editorial: Can resolve alone qualify TEPCO to operate nuclear reactors?




Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has judged that Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) is qualified, under certain conditions, to operate nuclear reactors.

The judgment comes in line with the nuclear watchdog's safety screening of the idled No. 6 and 7 reactors at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.


Technical screening of the reactors has practically finished, and in the near future the NRA is expected to release a draft of screening documents indicating that the reactors have passed new safety standards implemented in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.


But when looking closely at the screening process, the foundation for the nuclear watchdog's decision appears flimsy, and we have to say that it lacks persuasiveness.


The NRA's decision to screen TEPCO on its qualifications to operate the reactors was an unusual step not clearly stipulated in the new safety standards. It stems from NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka's judgment that TEPCO, having caused the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, is different from other power companies. It is understandable that an additional, high-level response is being sought from TEPCO.


In July this year, the NRA called in TEPCO officials including the utility's president Tomoaki Kobayakawa, and Tanaka put pressure on them, telling them, "If TEPCO is unwilling or unable to see through the decommissioning of the Fukushima reactors, it is simply not qualified to operate a nuclear power plant." He requested that TEPCO take the initiative in tackling problems such as the accumulation of tainted water on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.


In response, TEPCO last month submitted a document to the NRA in the name of the president. It stated that the company would "proactively face the parties involved and see through the decommissioning of the reactors," and that it would "deal with decommissioning at the Fukushima plant and safety improvements at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant at the same time." Though the document displayed TEPCO's resolve, it contained no concrete measures on dealing with contaminated water or other such issues.


In spite of this, Tanaka and other officials at the NRA went straight ahead and accepted the document. They took the position that the effectiveness of TEPCO's resolve could be ensured by making the utility express it in nuclear plant safety stipulations, with which operators are obliged to comply.


However, there are no clear standards for evaluating the stance with which TEPCO is tackling decommissioning work and safety countermeasures. Even if the company states its subjective resolve in safety regulations, doubts remain about how much of a binding effect that will have on the utility's actual stance.


In screenings to date there have emerged several findings which cast doubt on TEPCO's fitness to operate reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, including the discovery that the utility did not report to the NRA that the quake resistance of a seismic-isolated building that is supposed to serve as a base for handling accidents was not up to scratch.


Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama has indicated that inspection of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant is a priority issue, and so even if the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors pass screening, there are no immediate prospects of being able to restart them. So why is the NRA in such a hurry to reach a conclusion?


Tanaka's tenure as chairman of the NRA will expire this month. One might well think the NRA is rushing to clear reactivation of the reactors before he steps down. If things keep going the way they are, public trust in the NRA as a government nuclear watchdog will only decline.




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