Should operations of nuclear reactors that completed routine inspections be resumed?
That's the question everyone has been asking since the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Two reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai nuclear power plant have been offline since before March 11. The inspections have now been completed, and after approval by the town of Genkai, Saga Governor Yasushi Furukawa also signified his willingness to sanction the restart of the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors at the plant.
Routine inspections are carried out every 13 months. If none of the reactors that underwent inspection resume operations, Japan would have no running nuclear reactors by next spring. Although it is desirable to part with dependence on nuclear power plants as soon as possible, if such a move disrupts electric power supplies, then the restart of nuclear reactors that are deemed safe is inevitable.
Regardless, it seems premature to restart the reactors at this juncture given that the verifications of safety still have a long way to go. Kyushu Electric also needs to work harder to win the understanding of local residents and governments that host the plant.
Economy minister Banri Kaieda reassured the governor that the central government would be responsible for safety and explained that even when all power sources fail, as was the case in Fukushima, the cooling of nuclear reactors can continue with the use of power supply vehicles and pumps.
However, in the Fukushima case, questions have been raised over the possibility that equipment might have been damaged by the earthquake before the tsunami, and the cause of the accident has yet to be determined. The government made a "declaration of safety" after requiring electric power companies to implement emergency measures. But the decision was based on short-term measures alone.
Full-scale drills with the participation of local governments to cope with possible severe accidents have not been carried out, either.
As for Genkai nuclear power plant, Genkai town and Saga Prefecture are the only local governments with which Kyushu Electric Power has nuclear safety agreements. If the two approve the resumption of operations, as far as formality goes, the operator would have the understanding of "the local community."
But if an accident takes place, it would affect more than just the Genkai and Saga governments. In Fukushima, the distance from the crippled plant to the edge of the planned evacuation zone is nearly 50 kilometers.
"Most of our city is within a radius of 20 kilometers from the plant, and we are worried," said the mayor of Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, which surrounds Genkai.
The mayor of Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture, which has an island some 8 km from the Genkai plant, said, "Unless the central government also provides us with an explanation, residents will not accept (the resumption of operations)."
The central government also needs to carefully talk with these neighboring local governments and residents to win their understanding.
Kaieda said reactors that are considered dangerous will be shut down. Putting those words to practice would help in winning the understanding of the local communities.
Instead of declaring all nuclear power plants throughout the nation safe across the board, the government is urged to carefully examine problems of individual plants, taking into consideration such factors as changes in reactors caused by aging infrastructure and the locations where they stand.
Based on such examinations, the government should not allow the restart of old reactors and plants that experienced major earthquakes. As for reactors that will be put into operation, instead of hastily restarting them in time for this summer, the government should advance safety measures for the winter, which will be the next season when demand for electric power rises. Doing so would help the government recover public trust.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 1