Restart of nuclear plant operations is at the mercy of disparate courts

The restart of nuclear power plants is an issue that affects the country’s energy policy. A situation in which power companies are at the mercy of different judgments made by different courts is hard to understand.

On March 18, the Mito District Court handed down a ruling preventing the operation of Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. According to the court, there was no problem with the safety of the plant, but the evacuation plan for local residents formulated by the local government was insufficient.

Operations at the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant have been suspended since the Great East Japan Earthquake. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has determined that it complies with the new regulatory standards created after the disaster. The construction of a seawall and other safety measures are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022.

The Tokai No. 2 plant is the only nuclear power plant located in the Tokyo metropolitan area. About 940,000 people live within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant. Among all nuclear power plants in Japan, it has the highest concentration of residents in its surrounding area. The court seems to have decided that special consideration was needed because the area surrounding the plant includes highly populated districts.

The formulation of evacuation plans has been delayed. Under the law on special measures concerning nuclear emergency preparedness, 14 municipalities in the vicinity must prepare such plans, but nine municipalities, including Mito and Hitachi, have yet to do so.

A natural disaster can occur at any time. Local governments need to hurry up and formulate effective evacuation plans.

However, it would be unreasonable if a local government’s response regarding evacuation planning was the basis for determining whether or not a nuclear power plant can resume operations. Although the ruling will not take effect until it is finalized, it must be said that the road to restarting operations has become even more difficult. The JAPC is expected to appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, on the same day, March 18, the Hiroshima High Court approved the restart of the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture. The decision was a reversal of a provisional injunction issued by another judge of the high court.

The decision considered that there was nothing unreasonable in Shikoku Electric Power’s assessment, which concluded that there were no active faults near the plant. Regarding the impact of an eruption of Mt. Aso 130 kilometers away, the ruling stated that the power company’s assessment cannot be said to underestimate the risks. This is a reasonable view based on scientific knowledge.

The decision also noted that “it is not reasonable for the court, which does not have scientific knowledge of its own, to infer that there is a specific danger to the residents.”

After the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the safety of nuclear power plants has been challenged in numerous lawsuits and provisional injunction cases. Before the latest ruling on the Tokai No. 2 plant, there were seven judicial decisions preventing operations at nuclear power plants, but most of them have been overturned in subsequent trials.

Perhaps a binding precedent from the Supreme Court is needed to judge the suitability of restarting nuclear power plants.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 19, 2021.