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Japan's nuclear power restart debates

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Hajime Matsukubo

After the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the importance of separating nuclear regulation and promotion was highlighted. Therefore the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) was established in September 2012 to regulate nuclear activities. In July 2013, the NRA developed new regulatory requirements that included enhancement of nuclear safety such as severe accident countermeasures. And NRA will conduct compatibility evaluations of all nuclear power plants in Japan. Without NRA authorization, nuclear plants cannot restart operation.

Current status of review

In Japan, there are 48 nuclear power reactors. Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Ohi reactors #3 and #4 commenced periodical inspection from September 2013, so all nuclear power plants in Japan are offline now.

As described in the table below, some nuclear plant operators have applied for compatibility evaluation of new regulatory requirements. Further applications will be submitted upon satisfactory completion of compatibility evaluation.

Nuclear Power Plant

Commercial Operation Began (Reactor Years)

Submission date for compatibility evaluation


Hokkaido Electric Power Co.


1989 (25)



1991 (23)


2009 (5)

Kansai Electric Power Co.


1991 (23)



1993 (21)

Kansai Electric Power Co.


1985 (29)



1985 (29)

Shikoku Electric Power Co.


1994 (20)


Kyushu Electric Power Co.


1984 (30)



1985 (29)

Kyushu Electric Power Co.


1994 (20)



1997 (17)

Tokyo Electric Power Co.


1996 (18)



1997 (17)

Chugoku Electric Power Co.


1989 (25)


Tohoku Electric Power Co.


1995 (19)


Chubu Electric Power Co.


1993 (21)


Japan Atomic Power Co.


1978 (36)


TOHOKU Electric Power Co.


2005 (9)


HOKURIKU Electric Power Co.


2006 (8)


NRA is prioritizing Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) because it thinks these reactors are safer than Boiling Water Reactors (BWR). Among the PWR reactors, Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai reactors #1 and #2 went to the top of the queue of the compatibility evaluation process. NRA released a report on 16 July 2014 stating that Sendai reactors #1 and #2 meet new regulatory requirements. NRA has also opened a report for public comment from the scientific and technical point of view until August 15.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said at a press conference after the release of a report of NRA's evaluation, "assessment does not guarantee safety at the Sendai nuclear power station, it shows only that the plant matches the new regulatory standards". He also said: "restarting the plant depends solely on a consensus of local residents, municipalities, and other parties concerned". Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in response to questions in the Diet in February 2014 that the government will restart nuclear plants whose safety is confirmed by nuclear regulators.

Future situation

NRA's report about the Sendai plant will be given formal approval after the public comment process unless basic defects are found. Even if plant owner Kyushu gets approval, it will need to pass four gateways − NRA's Approval of Construction Plan, NRA's Approval of Operational Safety Program, NRA's Pre-service Inspection, and local governments' approval of restart.

On August 5, Kyushu announced that the submission of the Construction Plan to NRA will be delayed until the end of September. NRA's review process will take some months, so it will be difficult for Kyushu to restart Sendai reactors #1 and #2 this year.

Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama reactors #3 and #4 were thought to be in second place, but it turned out that some months of construction work are required to bolster tsunami defences. So there is no chance of Takahama reactors restarting this year.

Thirteen reactors face important problems such as active earthquake faults or ageing problems and it will be difficult to restart them − TEPCO's Fukushima Daini reactors #1−4, Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai Daini nuclear power station and Tsuruga reactors #1 and #2, Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Mihama reactors #1−3, Chugoku Electric Power Co.'s Shimane reactor #1, Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata reactor #1, and Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai reactor #1.

Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Ohi reactors #3 and #4 also have a significant hurdle to overcome − the Fukui district court ruled against restarting these plants on May 21.

Debate on reactor restarts

As mentioned, NRA has assessed just whether the plant matches the new regulatory standards or not, and it will not guarantee safety of nuclear power plant. But the government said the NRA will evaluate safety. So each body sidesteps their responsibility.

How will the government ensure local residents' radiation protection in the case of severe accident? After the Fukushima disaster, NRA widened the emergency preparedness area from an 8−10 km radius to a 30 km radius around the nuclear power plant. But the NRA will not evaluate evacuation plans. Local governments have to take primary responsibility for evacuation plans. These evacuation plans do not address Japanese social reality or the complexities of disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and nuclear disasters.

New regulatory requirements are based on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, but there are still a lot of ambiguities about the disaster. New regulatory requirements do not reflect the latest findings about the disaster.

Citizens' attitudes

A local newspaper, Minami Nippon Shimbun, held an opinion poll in April about the restart of the Sendai Nuclear Power Station in Kagoshima Prefecture, and found that 59.5% of voters "disagree" or "rather disagree" with reactor restarts, whereas 36.8% of voters "agree" or "rather agree". A nationwide poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in July found that 59% of voters "disagree" with reactor restarts, whereas only 23% "agree". These numbers have been consistent since the Fukushima disaster.

Satsuma-Sendai City, the local municipality of Sendai Nuclear Power Station, agrees with its restart but at the adjacent Ichiki-Kushikino City (population: 29,926), more than half of the residents signed a petition against restarting the Sendai reactors. The council of Aira city, located within the 30 km radius of the Sendai Nuclear Power Station, adopted a report against restarting Sendai reactors and calling for them to be decommissioned.

Concluding remarks

It is expected that the NRA will give the approval that Sendai meets new safety standards. But as Chairman Tanaka said, it does not give a guarantee of safety. Evacuation plans, and the safety which is not ensured by the new regulatory standard, are the main battlefields of Sendai Nuclear Power Station. As part of this battle, large meetings will held at Kagoshima Prefecture on August 31 and September 28.

Fukushima leaks, lies, cover-ups, Whac-A-Mole

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green - Nuclear Monitor editor

A huge storage tank from which about 300 tons of highly radioactive water leaked at Fukushima may have deteriorated as a result of being moved and reassembled, TEPCO says. The tank was first installed at a different location in June 2011 but, after its foundation was found to have cracked after the tank sank in the ground, it was dismantled and reassembled at its current location where the leak occurred.[1,2]

The leak was rated Level 3 on the International Nuclear Events Scale by Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) − making it the most serious incident since the March 2011 disaster in the NRA's view. Level 3 can be assigned when there is "severe contamination in an area not expected by design, with a low probability of significant public exposure."

Between July 2012 and June 2013, the NRA made recommendations or issued instructions around 10 times to increase patrols and to install more observation cameras and water gauges, among other measures. TEPCO only upped its patrols from once a day to twice a day, and installed more cameras while still leaving blind spots. Since the revelation of the 300-ton leak, TEPCO has said it will increase patrol staff from 10 to 60 people, boost the number of daily patrols to four, and install water gauges in the tanks.[3]

Previously, TEPCO assigned only two workers to inspect 1,000 water tanks, during twice-daily patrols of two hours each. That meant that each worker took only 15 seconds to inspect each tank, and radiation levels were not measured unless a worker suspected something was wrong. Although workers sometimes saw puddles of water, they generally assumed that they were rainwater, which tends to collect near the bases of the tanks.[4,5]

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited Fukushima on August 26 and said: "The major problem lies in that TEPCO failed to manage the tanks properly. ... The urgency of the situation is very high, from here on the government will take charge."[6] He said TEPCO "has been playing a game of Whac-a-Mole with problems at the site."[7]

More than 300,000 tons of contaminated water are being stored at the Fukushima plant, in around 1,000 tanks, with around 400 tons being added every day as water is still being used to cool reactors.

In early September, TEPCO said workers had discovered high levels of radioactivity on three tanks and one pipe. One reading was 1,800 millisieverts per hour (compared to typical background radiation levels of 2−3 millisieverts per year) and another reading was 2,200 millisieverts per hour. It is believed that at least five of the tanks holding contaminated water may have leaked. Officials said that water levels have not dropped in any of the five tanks (whereas the 300-ton leak markedly reduced the level). The tanks were constructed by bolting together sheets of metal, rather than welding them. Welded tanks are more secure but TEPCO chose the bolted type because they are cheaper and faster to construct.[4,10,11,28]

A subcontractor who worked on constructing the tanks said workers were concerned about the integrity of the tanks even as they were constructing them: "We were required to build tanks in succession. We gave priority to making the tanks, rather than quality control. There were fears that toxic water may leak." The life-span of the tanks is only around five years, the subcontractors added, and more contaminated water may leak as they deteriorate.[12,13]

The head of the NRA, Shinichi Tanaka, said there may be no choice but to pump radioactive water from tanks − which are nearing capacity − into the sea but most of the contamination would first be removed. "The situation at Fukushima is changing every day," he said. "Fukushima Daiichi has various risks. The accident has yet to be settled down."[8,9]

Meanwhile, the NRA is urging TEPCO to increase monitoring of seawater to better assess the effects on ocean water as well as fish and other marine life. Shunichi Tanaka said TEPCO's efforts to monitor oceanic radiation levels have been insufficient.[14]

Fishers south of Fukushima Daiichi have not been able to fish commercially since the disaster, while those north of the plant can catch only octopus and whelks. They planned a trial catch in the hope that radiation levels would be low enough to begin sales soon after − but that plan has been aborted in the wake of the recent spills and leaks. Hiroshi Kishi, chair of the Japan Fisheries Co-operative, said: "This has dealt an immeasurable blow to the future of Japan's fishing industry, and we are extremely concerned." Nobuyuki Hatta, director of the Fukushima Prefecture Fisheries Research Centre, said: "People in the fishing business have no choice but to give up. Many have mostly given up already."[15,16,17]


In addition to problems with water tanks, there are ongoing problems with contaminated water in, around and beneath the reactor buildings. On July 10, the NRA announced it "highly suspected" that the plant was leaking contaminated water into the ocean. TEPCO didn't acknowledge what was happening until July 22; a month after initial suspicions were raised.[18,19] The NRA's Shunichi Tanaka said he believed contamination of the sea had been continuing since the March 2011 catastrophe.[20]

In response to the July revelations, Dale Klein, a member of TEPCO's Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee and former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told TEPCO: "It ... appears that you are not keeping the people of Japan informed. These actions indicate that you don't know what you are doing ... you do not have a plan and that you are not doing all you can to protect the environment and the people." [21]

Barbara Judge, a member of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee and former chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said she was "disappointed and distressed" over the company's lack of disclosure: "I hope that there will be lessons learned from the mishandling of this issue and the next time an issue arises − which inevitably it will because decommissioning is a complicated and difficult process − that the public will be immediately informed about the situation and what TEPCO is planning to do in order to remedy it."[21]

Atsushi Kasai, a former researcher at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, said: "They let people know about the good things and hide the bad things. This culture of cover up hasn't changed since the disaster."[22]

Journalist Mark Willacy described the recurring pattern: "At first TEPCO denies there's a problem at the crippled Fukushima plant. Then it becomes obvious to everyone that there is a problem, so the company then acknowledges the problem and makes it public. And finally one of its hapless officials is sent out to apologise to the cameras."[23]

Still more problems surfaced in August. Three months earlier, TEPCO realised that contaminants apparently leaking from a maze of conduits near the reactors were responsible for a spike in radiation levels in groundwater elsewhere in the plant. TEPCO began to build an underground "wall" created by injected hardening chemicals into the soil but the barrier created a dam and water pooled behind it eventually began to flow over. In August, government officials said they believed 300 tons of the contaminated water was entering the ocean daily.[24] Shinji Kinjo, head of an taskforce, described the situation as an "emergency" and said the discharges exceeded legal limits of radioactivity.[25]

In early September, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government would allocate 47 billion yen (US$470 million) towards dealing with the contaminated water problems, including funding for a massive underground wall of frozen earth around the damaged reactors to contain groundwater flows, and funding to improve a water treatment system meant to reduce radiation levels in the contaminated water.[26]

Mayors from Futaba, Okuma, Tomioka, and Naraha have joined Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato in formally demanding the decommissioning of all 10 nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, not just those that were damaged in the 2011 nuclear disaster.[27]

Reactor #3 at Kansai Electric's Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture has been taken offline for routine maintenance, leaving just one reactor operating in all of Japan: reactor #4 at the same facility. That reactor will go offline on September 15. For the first time in 14 months and only the second time since 1966, Japan will be entirely nuclear free.


Fukushima Tourism Proposal
A group of authors, scholars, academics and architects has put forward a proposal for a new community on the edge of the Fukushima exclusion zone. Tourists would be able to check into hotels constructed to protect guests from elevated levels of radiation. The village would also have restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as a museum dedicated to the impact the disaster has had on local people. Visitors would be taken on a tour of "ground zero" dressed in protective suits and wearing respirators. The group said they got the idea from the growth in so-called "dark tourism" such as Ground Zero in New York or the "killing fields" of Cambodia.
− Julian Ryall, 19 August 2013, The Telegraph,