Local governments outside the immediate vicinity of nuclear power plants are increasing their demands for a say in the operations and the safety of the reactors. But electric utilities continue to largely ignore such requests, saying central government guidelines are sufficient.
An Asahi Shimbun study found that two prefectural governments and 38 municipalities near seven nuclear power plants have made such requests since the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Existing safety agreements oblige utilities to gain the approval of prefectural and local governments hosting their nuclear plants to restart reactors that have been offline for maintenance or accidents.
These agreements are not legally binding, and their enforcement can vary from prefecture to prefecture. But it became customary for utilities to gain the consent of the local governments in the 1970s.
One big problem facing other local governments is that the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan has set a radius of 8-10 kilometers of a plant for emergency planning zones (EPZ)--areas that should be well prepared for a possible nuclear disaster.
Local governments outside the EPZ have rarely been included in safety arrangements with the utilities.
"An increase in the number of local governments a utility is obliged to listen to for starting and restarting nuclear reactors will bring about no merit," said a former senior official at a utility.
But with the no-entry zone around the Fukushima plant already at 20 km, local governments say the EPZ itself is now baseless.
"We have learned that damage caused by a nuclear accident can spread to municipalities other than those hosting the power plant," an official handling nuclear affairs at the Fujieda city government in Shizuoka Prefecture said.
Chubu Electric Power Co., which runs the Hamaoka nuclear plant in the prefecture, has safety agreements with Omaezaki, host of the plant, and three others within a 10-km radius. It also has a safety arrangement with the prefectural government.
About 20 days after the March 11 disaster, Fujieda and three other cities asked Chubu Electric to conclude a safety agreement extending the EPZ to a 30-km radius from the Hamaoka plant.
The Hamaoka plant is considered at great risk of damage from a long-expected huge earthquake in the area.
Fukui Prefecture, home to five of the nation's 18 nuclear power plants, has a more forceful safety agreement with local governments than those in other prefectures.
Local governments have the authority to demand a halt to the operation of nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture. The agreement also prohibits a plant operator from restarting reactors without their consent.
The Kyoto prefectural government is pressing for a safety agreement with Kansai Electric Power Co. Parts of the prefecture lie within a 20-km radius of the utility's Takahama and Oi nuclear plants in Fukui Prefecture.
In May, Kyoto Prefecture drew up its own provisional defense measures by extending the EPZ to a 20-km radius.
The prefecture asked Kansai Electric on June 22 to conclude a safety agreement--as strong as the accord in Fukui Prefecture--with it and five municipalities in a 20-km radius.
Nagahama and three other local governments in Shiga Prefecture asked Kansai Electric and other plant operators in Fukui Prefecture to the north to conclude safety agreements for the first time.
Regarding the Shimane nuclear plant in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, the Tottori prefectural government and the Sakaiminato and Yonago city governments have asked plant operator Chugoku Electric Power Co. to establish a safety agreement.
The request in May by Sakaiminato, 17 km from the plant, is its fifth.
"It has been established that the existing EPZ is meaningless," said Sakaiminato Mayor Katsuji Nakamura.
Kensaku Nakagawa, 62, a member of the Yonago municipal assembly, blasted the Tottori prefectural government for its failure to address local safety concerns.
He and others are pressing for a safety agreement between Chugoku Electric and Yonago because the city borders on the 30-km radius of the Shimane plant.
"We have urged the central and prefectural governments to extend the EPZ, but prefectural officials have not taken action, citing the EPZ as the 'national guidelines,'" he said. "The prefectural government has been irresponsible, just like the central government."
The central government has instructed prefectural governments, which design disaster plans within their jurisdictions, to "sufficiently respect" the EPZ yardstick.
But the central government this month began a drastic overhaul of guidelines for dealing with a major disaster, including a review of the EPZ.
In Ehime Prefecture, home to Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata nuclear plant, Yawatahama city is considering requesting a safety accord.
Although the Hirohaya district of the city is only 7 km from the plant and within the EPZ, Yawatahama has been without an agreement.
"It doesn't make sense that we cannot say anything about the operation of the nuclear power plant, which sits just under our noses," said an 86-year-old farmer who lives in Hirohaya district.
Safety agreements are also being discussed in Matsuura and other municipalities in Nagasaki Prefecture. Matsuura's Takashima island is within the EPZ of Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai nuclear plant in Saga Prefecture.
Kyushu Electric currently has a safety agreement only with the Saga prefectural government and Genkai town government.
The former senior official at a utility acknowledged the growing calls for safety accords are "understandable" and something "power operators will find difficult to spurn."
However, the utilities have been slow to respond to the recent requests, saying the requests are "under consideration" or a decision will be made "after listening to the details."
Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer involved in a court battle over the suspended operations at the Hamaoka plant, said the recent moves to clinch safety agreements could make it tougher on utilities already struggling in the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture.
"The time has arrived when operating reactors became even more difficult," Kaido said.
(This article was written by Koichiro Ishida and Takaaki Nishiyama.)
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