KYOTO – The magnitude-7.4 aftershock that rocked Fukushima Prefecture and its vicinity last week, more than five years after the mega-quake and tsunami of March 2011, triggered fresh nuclear concerns in the Kansai region, which hosts Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Mihama plant in Fukui Prefecture.
The aftershock came as the Nuclear Regulation Authority approved a two-decade extension for Mihama’s No. 3 reactor on Nov. 16, allowing it and two others that have already been approved to run for as long as 60 years to provide electricity to the Kansai region.
Residents need to live with the fact that they are close to the Fukui reactors, which are at least 40 years old. Despite reassurances by Kepco, its operator, and the nuclear watchdog, worries remain over what would happen if an earthquake similar to the one in 2011, or even last week, hit the Kansai region.
Kyoto lies about 60 km and Osaka about 110 km from the old Fukui plants. Lake Biwa, which provides water to about 13 million people, is less than 60 km away.
In addition to Kepco’s 40-year-old Mihama No. 3, reactors 1 and 2 at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui are 42 and 41 years old, respectively.
In the event of an accident, evacuation procedures for about 253,000 residents of Fukui, Shiga, and Kyoto prefectures who are within 30 km of the plants would go into effect.
But how effective might they be?
The majority does not live in Fukui. Just over half, or 128,500, live in neighboring Kyoto, especially in and around the port city of Maizuru, home to a Self-Defense Forces base. Another 67,000 live in four towns in Fukui and about 58,000 live in northern Shiga Prefecture.
Plans call for Fukui and Kyoto prefecture residents to evacuate to 29 cities and 12 towns in Hyogo Prefecture and, if facilities there are overwhelmed, to Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku. Those in Shiga are supposed to evacuate to cities and towns in Osaka Prefecture.
In a scenario put together by Kyoto Prefecture three years ago, it was predicted that tens of thousands of people would take to available roads in the event of an nuclear accident. A 100 percent evacuation of everyone within 30 km of a stricken Fukui plant was estimated to take between 15 and 29 hours, depending on how much damage there was to the transportation infrastructure.
But Kansai-based anti-nuclear activists have criticized local evacuation plans as being unrealistic for several reasons.
First, they note that the region around the plants gets a lot of snow in the winter, which could render roads, even if still intact after a quake or other disaster, much more difficult to navigate, slowing evacuations even further.
Second is the radiation screening process that has been announced in official local plans drawn up by Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures.
While automobiles would be stopped at various checkpoints along the roads leading out of Fukui and given radiation tests, those inside would not be tested if the vehicle itself has radiation levels below the standard.
If the radiation is above standard, one person, a “representative” of everyone in the car, would be checked and, if approved, the car would be allowed to continue on its way under the assumption that the others had also been exposed to levels below standard. This policy stands even if those levels might be more dangerous to children than adults.
Finally, there is the question of whether bus drivers would cooperate by going in and out of radioactive zones to help those who lack quick access to a car, especially senior citizens in need of assistance.
None of the concerns about the evacuation plans is new, and most have been pointed out by safety experts, medical professionals and anti-nuclear groups.
But with the NRA having approved restarts for three Kansai-area reactors that are over 40 years old, Kansai leaders are responding more cautiously to efforts to restart Mihama No. 3 in particular.
“It is absolutely crucial that local understanding for Mihama’s restart be obtained,” said pro-nuclear Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa in July, after a local newspaper survey showed that only about 37 percent of Fukui residents agree with the decision to restart old reactors.
Shiga Gov. Taizo Mikazuki, who is generally against nuclear power, was even more critical of the NRA’s decision to restart Mihama.
“There are major doubts about the law that regulates the use of nuclear reactors more than 40 years old. The central government and Kepco need to explain safety countermeasures to residents who are uneasy. People are extremely uneasy about continuing to run old reactors,” the governor said earlier this month.
A turbine at the No. 3 reactor of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Mihama plant in Fukui Prefecture is seen on Nov. 16.