Kashiwazaki Mayor Masahiro Sakurai, left, explains the city’s conditions for the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant at a meeting with Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. President Tomoaki Kobayakawa at the city hall in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, on July 25.
KASHIWAZAKI, Niigata Prefecture–Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s hopes of a phased restart of all of the reactors at its nuclear power plant here to save on fuel costs faces a new obstacle in the form of the local mayor.
Mayor Masahiro Sakurai said July 25 he will agree to the restart of two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, but on the condition that TEPCO “presents a plan to decommission the remaining five in two years.”
The demand was made in the mayor’s first meeting with TEPCO’s new president, Tomoaki Kobayakawa. Sakurai handed over a document listing the city’s conditions for a restart.
In response, Kobayakawa merely said, “We should exchange opinions further.”
The plant, which is located in Kashiwazaki and neighboring Kariwa, is one of the world’s largest nuclear power stations, with seven nuclear reactors.
All the reactors are offline now.
But TEPCO plans to reactivate the No. 6 and No. 7 reactors, the two newest units, as early as fiscal 2019 after they are certified by the Nuclear Regulation Authority as meeting more stringent safety regulations put in place after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The company wants to restart the rest in stages.
Restarting the facility is crucial to the company’s bottom line as it needs to secure a treasure chest to finance the enormous cost of decommissioning the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and paying compensation to victims.
At the meeting, Sakurai expressed “strong doubts about the corporate culture that governs TEPCO.”
He referred to revelations that surfaced in February about the poor quake-resistance of an emergency response center at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. It emerged that the center was capable of withstanding less than half of the strongest shaking of a very major earthquake projected to strike the facility.
The company became aware of the startling finding when it reassessed the fitness of the emergency response center in 2014, but it did not report the matter to the NRA.
The emergency response center was completed in 2009 after the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake of 2007, in which the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was damaged.
“Considering the risks, operating seven reactors in one place is too many,” Sakurai said.
Sakurai was elected mayor for the first time in November 2016 after running on a platform of agreeing to restarts with conditions.
He envisages that the decommissioning of even one of the oldest five reactors will lead to job opportunities for local workers and promotion of local industry.
The No. 1 through No. 5 reactors went into service between 1985 and 1994.
After the meeting, the mayor told reporters that his demand for closing down the old reactors is reasonable.
“The No. 1 to No. 5 reactors are old, and some of them have remained offline since the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake,” he said. “The utility will need sufficient funds to safeguard such reactors if they are reactivated. I believe it can show us a plan for decommissioning within two years.”
Niigata Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama could prove a more formidable obstacle to the plant operator.
The governor met with Kobayakawa and TEPCO’s new chairman, Takashi Kawamura, on the same day for the first time, reiterating his strong opposition to restarts.
“We cannot start discussing the restart of the plant unless a review of the safety of the plant is completed,” Yoneyama said.
Although governors do not have the legal authority to stop reactor restarts, it has been a protocol to reactivate a plant after gaining their consent.
Tepco wants to restart reactors in Niigata to help pay for USD190 billion needed for Fukushima follies
Employees work in the central control room for the No.7 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Holdings’ Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture in 2009.
On July 16, 2007, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the world’s largest nuclear power complex at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Niigata Prefecture. This was on a site that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. had insisted was seismically safe.
Two years earlier, the Tokyo High Court had ruled against local plaintiffs backed by scientists who insisted the authorities were wrong and that there was an active fault line adjacent to the site. In 2007, Mother Nature overruled the judge, raising questions about relying on old evaluations by institutions favoring nuclear energy in assessing site safety, particularly given subsequent advancements in seismic science.
The good news is that the reactors shut down automatically and the plant withstood tectonic shocks way beyond what anyone had anticipated when designing the structures. The bad news trickled slowly out of Tepco, but an NHK special shortly afterwards aired a startling revelation. The plant manager told NHK that it was very lucky that everything worked as planned and that there was no serious accident — especially considering that the door of the control center had been jammed and nobody could get in. This meant that if there had been a crisis, nobody would have been able to manage it because the emergency controls were inaccessible.
The door was stuck because the land subsided due to the earthquake. It is hard to anticipate every contingency, and that is precisely why accidents happen. If the safety systems had not functioned as planned, Kashiwazaki might have spun out of control, but luckily it was just a close call.
Also worrisome was the transformer fire that took an age to put out because the water pipes had ruptured due to the earthquake. And why was there a nine-hour delay in informing local authorities about the situation, including some radiation leaks? Apparently the plant workers were preoccupied with setting up whiteboards in the parking lot as an improvised control center and using their mobile phones to communicate with each other. Tepco also downplayed how much radioactive water had leaked, a spill that Asahi reporters spotted workers mopping up with paper towels.
At Kashiwazaki-Kariwa there are seven reactors with an 8,200 megawatt capacity, enough for 16 million households. This clustering of reactors means that if there was an accident, it could cascade into a major disaster.
The reactors went online between 1985 and 1997 and generated $2 billion in subsidies for the hosting towns, on top of tax revenues and many high-paying jobs. But local enthusiasm has dimmed considerably since then. Back in 2001 Tepco was caught falsifying repair and maintenance data at all of its 17 reactors, suggesting that management did not nurture a culture of safety. Then, in 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that fire prevention measures at the Niigata plant were inadequate.
Niigata voters have since elected nuclear skeptics for mayor and prefectural governor. In a nationwide poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun last October, 57 percent of the public opposed restarting nuclear reactors while only 29 percent were in favor. Earlier in 2016, a poll conducted by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization found that 12 percent of respondents favored maintaining or increasing Japan’s nuclear energy output while nearly 63 percent wanted to end nuclear power in Japan, either by phasing it out (48 percent) or immediately pulling the plug (15 percent).
Public opposition to nuclear power is not only driven by safety concerns and the tragic fate of tens of thousands of nuclear refugees displaced from ancestral homes in Tohoku. The Fukushima disaster is also a financial black hole that will burden taxpayers and ratepayers for decades to come. And there are the high costs of decommissioning many aging reactors and the expense involved in building a site to permanently store radioactive waste.
Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama has slowed plans to restart any reactors, calling for a comprehensive safety review, development of an evacuation plan and an assessment of the Fukushima disaster’s public health impact, all of which could take three years. Tepco’s latest rehabilitation plan includes restarting two of the reactors by March 2020, saying the profits would help it pay off the staggering ¥21.5 trillion ($190 billion) bill for Fukushima, an estimate that is likely to keep rising over the next few decades.
The mayor of Kashiwazaki has also weighed in, requesting that Tepco begin decommissioning one reactor before agreeing to restart the two reactors Tepco wants to bring back online. The Nuclear Regulation Authority is currently conducting safety inspections at two of the reactors. The mayor thinks that seven reactors is too much and is worried about the safety of the control center, wondering if it is sufficiently strong to withstand a powerful quake, possibly because Tepco admitted to misleading the NRA in February about just how strong the structure is. He is hopeful that decommissioning will generate jobs and revitalize the local community.
The mayor also expressed concern about the threat of nuclear missiles from North Korea, prompting NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka to joke that Tokyo would make a better target. Funny guy.
The Fukushima debacle has already cost in excess of $100 billion and the government estimates that total will skyrocket in coming years. If only Tepco had heeded internal warnings in 2009 about the possibility of a monster tsunami striking the Fukushima No. 1 plant and built a bigger tsunami wall. That would have cost $1 billion, a bargain in retrospect. Will the ongoing trial of three Tepco executives find them responsible for this and other instances of negligence? Probably not.
And now there are five nuclear reactors operating in Japan, and soon two more in Kyushu, due to court rulings favorable to the utilities. The fate of an additional 35 operable reactors is uncertain, but the staggering costs of decommissioning many of these — so far the NRA has approved five decommissioning proposals that will cost about $10 billion — raise questions about the viability of nuclear energy in Japan.
Toshiba, which is selling off its key assets to pay for its purchase of Westinghouse Electric, knows just how risky the nuclear business is, and hopefully Tepco now understands that cutting corners to save money was abysmal risk management.
Many Japanese must envy South Korea, where newly elected Prime Minister Moon Jae-in has vowed to phase out nuclear energy and cancel plans to build new plants and extend the operating life of its 25 aging reactors. In contrast, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reinstated nuclear power into the national energy strategy, targeting 20 to 22 percent of the overall mix, demonstrating the resilient influence of Japan’s “nuclear village.”