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Friday, June 24, 2011
Restart of reactors is premature
Trade and industry minister Banri Kaieda on June 18 declared that the nation's operators of commercial nuclear power facilities had taken adequate measures to handle severe accidents and called for restarting the power plants.
What occupies his mind is the fear of power shortages during the summer and of unstable power supplies hampering economic activities that may compel Japanese manufacturing firms to move their factories overseas.
Of Japan's 54 commercial reactors, 35 are out of operation because of either regular checks or damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
In view of the circumstances in which Mr. Kaieda's declaration and call were made, people will not yet be convinced that Japan's nuclear power plants are adequately safe.
People will not fully support his fear of power shortages, either, unless he and the power companies enumerate all available nonnuclear power plants, and disclose their total capacity and expected demand.
The accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have deepened people's suspicion about the safety of nuclear power generation. More than three months after the March 11 quake and tsunami hit the facility, Tepco has been unable to bring the accidents under control. Three reactors suffered meltdowns.
As Tepco injects water into the reactors to cool them, water contaminated with radioactive substances is leaking from the plant, raising fears of further contamination of the environment. There is also a suspicion that Tepco has withheld vital information from the public. Under the circumstances, people will not take Mr. Kaieda's declaration at face value. As a procedure, utilities must gain consent from local governments concerned before they restart reactors. Most governors of the 13 prefectures where nuclear power plants are located are skeptical about Mr. Kaieda's declaration.
Gov. Yuichiro Ito of Kagoshima Prefecture, where two reactors are located, said that he understood Mr. Kaieda's statement as an official responsible for the stable supply of electricity.
But Gov. Issei Nishikawa of Fukui Prefecture, where 13 commercial reactors and the prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju are located, said priority should be given to the safety of prefectural residents and Japanese people and that Mr. Kaieda's talk about power shortages' impact on economic activities does not correctly respond to what he (the governor) is thinking.
Gov. Nishikawa also pointed out that it is unclear how not only the tsunami but also the quake and the aging of the reactors contributed to the accidents at the Fukushima No. 1 facility. This is an important point. All six reactors at the power plant are more than 30 years.
In Fukui Prefecture, eight reactors are more than 30 years old. A high-ranking official of the Fukui prefectural government said that if Mr. Kaieda thinks that the measures recently taken at the reactors have greatly improved their safety, his thinking is hard to understand.
Many governors also wonder on what grounds the central government, which ordered the suspension of Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power plant, believes that other nuclear power plants are safe.
On March 30, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of Mr. Kaieda's ministry instructed the reactor operators to take short-term steps to cope with the loss of outside power supplies, the loss of functions to cool reactors with sea water and the loss of cooling functions of spent nuclear fuel storage pools — all in the event of tsunami. The measures included deployment of power generation vehicles, fire engines to supply cooling water and fire hoses. In early May, NISA approved the measures taken by the operators. It is clear that NISA's thinking excludes the possibility of a quake damaging reactors.
On June 7, NISA instructed the reactor operators to take additional short-term measures to deal with severe accidents, including the securing of power supplies to the central control room when power is lost, steps to prevent a hydrogen explosion, preparation of alternative means of communication in the event of an emergency, deployment of heavy construction machines to remove debris and the deployment of gear to protect workers against radiation exposure. NISA inspected the reactors on June 15 and 16 and approved the measures taken, after receiving notification on June 14 from the utilities.
If local government officials and people take a careful look at these measures, they will not consider them adequate to bring serious accidents under control.
On June 19, Prime Minister Naoto Kan endorsed Mr. Kaieda's move. It is hard to understand how his endorsement is congruous with his earlier call for increasing the percentage of electricity from renewable sources to 20 percent of Japan's power supply by the early 2020s.
Mr. Kan should quickly announce a long-term road map to reduce Japan's dependence on nuclear power and ways to offset the phasing out of nuclear energy.
Without such a plan, Japan under the force of inertia will continue to depend on nuclear power for a large part of its energy needs.