Japan’s strict standards are delaying the restart of nuclear reactors

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Members of the Nuclear Regulation Authority inspect the surface of a fault near the Shika nuclear power plant in Shika, Ishikawa Prefecture, on July 7.

The reactivation of nuclear power reactors has been delayed in Japan due to the Nuclear Regulation Authority significantly tightening its rules related to natural disasters, and power companies needing to take time to prove their operations are safe under the new system.

The NRA was established in September 2012 as a new nuclear regulatory authority, in response to lessons learned from the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Before that, the nation’s nuclear power generation was regulated by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, an organization of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, which promotes nuclear power.

To rebuild the nuclear administration, which had lost the trust of the public, the NRA was established as a satellite organ of the Environment Ministry. Based on the Article 3 of the National Government Organization Law, it can manage its personnel affairs and budgets independently.

There are five commissioners in the NRA and it introduced in 2013 new regulatory standards, considered the strictest in the world, to strengthen measures against natural disasters. New response measures against serious accidents, such as reactor core meltdowns, were also included.

A “backfit” system was likewise introduced, which requires nuclear power reactors that had passed safety screenings in the past to meet the latest standards.

The NRA had held screening meetings 1,073 times as of Friday, totaling more than 3,000 hours. Screenings have become prolonged as scientific opinion is divided over the assessment of faults and tsunami on the sites, and it has taken several years to prove the safety of plants.

In the past 10 years, electric power companies have applied for the screening of 27 reactors. However, only 17 reactors have passed and only 10 of those reactors have been reactivated.

One reason for the prolonged screening process is said to be a lack of communication between the NRA and electric power companies. The NRA therefore decided on Sept. 7 to review the way screening meetings are held to enhance their efficiency.

A document will be produced to confirm that the relevant power company and the NRA share the understandings reached at a meeting. Other steps include increasing the number of meetings, and notifying relevant parties in advance of the points to be discussed and confirmed at a meeting.

However, NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa has said, “We cannot hope to shorten the screening period significantly.” indicating a sense of impasse.

Almost all the screening meetings can be viewed on YouTube. However, nuclear power consultant Satoshi Sato criticized the NRA for misunderstanding the nature of transparency and openness.

“They need to make an effort to summarize the main points of the discussions,” Sato said. “If the points are made public, the power companies can all be aware of the issues and put them to good use in the screenings.”

In response to the tight electricity supply, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced that a maximum of nine reactors should be activated this winter and that he aims to restart seven more reactors from next summer that have already passed the screening process.

Fuketa will step down late this month, leaving the NRA without a commissioner who is familiar with the circumstances surrounding its establishment. He will be replaced by commissioner Shinsuke Yamanaka, a specialist in nuclear fuel engineering.

Yamanaka’s leadership skills will be put to the test as to whether he can carry on the lessons learned from the 2011 nuclear accident and resume reactors’ operations without compromising safety.