Restarting Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant would be a huge mistake

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The Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Tokai village, Ibaraki Prefecture, which is operated by Japan Atomic Power Co.
July 5, 2018
The Nuclear Regulation Authority has concluded that the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, operated by Japan Atomic Power Co., meets improved safety standards for a restart.
The watchdog body’s decision effectively paves the way for bringing the idled facility back online.
But a slew of questions and concerns cast serious doubt on the wisdom of restarting this aging nuclear plant located at the northern tip of the Tokyo metropolitan area, given that it is approaching the end of its 40-year operational lifespan.
There is a compelling case against bringing the plant back on stream unless these concerns are properly addressed.
The first major question is how the project can be squared with the rules for reducing the risk of accidents at aging nuclear facilities.
The 40-year lifespan for nuclear reactors is an important rule to reduce the risk of accidents involving aging reactors that was introduced in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.
Although a reactor’s operational life can be extended by up to 20 years if approved by the NRA, the government, at the time of the revision to the law, said it would be granted only in exceptional cases.
Despite this caveat, Kansai Electric Power Co.’s applications for extensions for its three aging reactors all got the green light.
The NRA has yet to approve the requested extension of the Tokai No. 2 plant’s operational life. But it is obvious that the nuclear watchdog’s approval will cause further erosion of the rule. It will also undermine the regulatory regime to limit the lifespan of nuclear facilities per se.
Local communities have also raised objections to restarting the Tokai No. 2 plant. Some 960,000 people live within 30 kilometers of the plant, more than in any other 30-km emergency planning zone.
The local governments within the zone are struggling to develop legally required emergency evacuation plans to prepare for major accidents.
This spring, an agreement was reached between Japan Atomic Power and five municipalities around the plant, including Mito, that commits the operator to seek approval from local authorities within the 30-km zone before restarting the plant.
Winning support from the local communities for the plant reactivation plan is undoubtedly a colossal challenge, given strong anxiety about the facility’s safety among local residents. The gloomy situation was brought home by the Mito municipal assembly’s adoption of a written opinion opposing the plan.
But Japan Atomic Power is determined to carry through the plan as its survival depends on the plant continuing operation.
The company was set up simply to produce and sell electricity by using atomic energy. Its nuclear reactors are all currently offline, which has placed the entity in serious financial difficulty.
Since the company is unable to raise on its own funds to implement the necessary safety measures at the Tokai No. 2 plant, which are estimated to exceed 170 billion yen ($1.54 billion), Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and Tohoku Electric Power Co., which are both shareholders and customers of the company, will provide financial support.
But TEPCO has been put under effective state control to deal with the costly consequences of the Fukushima disaster.
It is highly doubtful that the utility, which is kept alive with massive tax-financed support, is qualified to take over the financial risk of the business of another company in trouble.
TEPCO claims the Tokai No. 2 plant is promising as a source of low-cost and stable power supply, although it has not offered convincing grounds for the claim.
Some members of the NRA have voiced skepticism about this view.
TEPCO and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which supervises the power industry, have a responsibility to offer specific and detailed explanations about related issues to win broad public support for the plan to reactivate the Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant.
A hard look at the grim situation surrounding the plant leaves little doubt that restarting it does not make sense.
Japan Atomic Power and the major electric utilities that own it should undertake a fundamental review of the management of the nuclear power company without delaying efforts to tackle the problems besetting the operator of the Tokai No. 2 plant.
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