Editorial: New safety standards for nuclear power plants

Measures must not have loopholes

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has begun accepting public comments on its draft outline of new safety standards for nuclear power plants. The NRA plans to put together its proposed standards in April after listening to people’s opinions through the end of this month. By law, the standards must be formulated in July.

If the new standards are formulated on schedule, and the power companies meet them, they will be able to apply to restart their nuclear power plants. The power industry seems to expect that if reviews proceed smoothly, several plants, including Shikoku Electric’s Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture, will be able to resume operations within the year. This suggests that an environment favorable to the “rehabilitation” of nuclear power plants is steadily being put in place.

For that very reason, the public comment process must not be allowed to be a mere formality. The NRA must make a sincere effort to reflect a variety of opinions in its debate and to dispel the public’s concerns one by one.

One pillar of the new safety standards is “countermeasures in the event of a terrible accident.” This includes prevention of damage to the reactor core and to the containment vessel even in situations such as a natural disaster greater than what was assumed or a terrorist attack using aircraft.

The draft also includes requirements for filters to remove radioactive materials from emissions and the addition of a second control room from which reactors can be cooled remotely even if the main control room is destroyed.

Another pillar of the standards is measures to be taken in the event of an earthquake or tsunami. Each nuclear power plant is being asked to assume the largest possible tsunami and then construct a seawall that exceeds that height.

These standards are clearly based on the lessons of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant. But they are merely necessary conditions. There must be ample debate to determine whether or not these standards are adequate to address every risk.

Even if tough standards are established, if they are not adhered to they will be meaningless. But the NRA says it plans to offer a grace period for the installation of some safety equipment.

Meeting the standards will presumably take a great deal of time. It seems that this exception is being made to go along with the wishes of the power companies, which want to resume operations as soon as possible. It is no surprise that people regard this as a loophole.

The power companies are burdened by the high cost of fuel for thermal power generation. Against this backdrop, there has been a string of moves to raise electric rates. There also seems to be a tendency to promote the fact that if the nuclear power plants are restarted, it will reduce the burden on consumers. But the top priority must be safety. The pros and cons of restarting the plants must not be talked about merely in terms of the short-term economic benefit.

As well as safety standards for the “containers” at nuclear power plants, from the standpoint of ordinary citizens another important area for consideration is how well the public will be protected and whether or not they can escape danger. But the NRA’s draft revisions to the guidelines on nuclear emergency response are short on specifics.

Take, for example, the handling of iodine for the prevention of irradiation of the thyroid gland. The NRA says iodine will be distributed in advance to homes within a 5 km radius of a nuclear power plant. But what should be done to let people know about things like the proper dosage and how the iodine should be stored?

Local governments that must prepare disaster plans are stumped. Problems apparently arose even in the evacuation drills conducted by Shimane Prefecture and others in late January. These included transportation for those who are vulnerable in a disaster, ensuring there are people to direct others and securing disaster prevention equipment and materials. Most people who live near nuclear power plants must be wondering whether or not they will really be able to evacuate.

Like the safety standards for nuclear power plants, the disaster prevention plan also has a deadline and must be formulated by March 18. We must not move toward resuming operations without adequate debate.

(Originally published on February 8, 2013)