Senior government officials are worried that a state panel set up to oversee the safety of nuclear facilities may get in the way of plans to restart suspended nuclear reactors to avoid power shortages this summer.
Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, established under the Cabinet Office, said on Feb. 20 that the first-stage “stress tests” at nuclear reactors were insufficient to determine their overall safety.
“To assess the safety of nuclear facilities comprehensively, the results of the first-stage and second-stage (of stress tests) should be looked at together in one package,” Madarame told a news conference.
Under the first-stage tests, utilities have to look at how much of a safety cushion their reactors have against expected quake, tsunami and other disasters. The second-stage tests are much stricter and are designed to ensure through detailed inspections that Japan’s nuclear facilities will be safe even in an accident that far exceeds expectations.
Madarame’s remarks came a day before the commission began the process of verifying the assessment of two reactors at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture made by the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
A Diet member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan whose constituency hosts a nuclear plant expressed concern about Madarame’s comment.
“I am afraid his remarks will have repercussions on the restart,” the lawmaker said.
NISA accepted that Kansai Electric Power Co.’s argument that its computer simulation conducted to comply with the first-stage check indicates that the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture pose no safety problems.
If the commission’s evaluation backs NISA’s assessment, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three ministers with responsibilities relating to nuclear power are expected to decide on the restarts.
Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration introduced the stress test last year after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Under the new setup, electric utilities are required to clear the first-stage stress tests to restart reactors that were shut down for regular maintenance.
The second-stage check involves all the nation’s 54 reactors except for the crippled Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 plants operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., to determine if they will be allowed to continue to operate.
Only two of Japan’s reactors are operating and they will go offline by the end of April.
The Noda administration has been working for the restart of the reactors at the Oi plant in response to growing concerns from the business sector about power shortages this summer.
If the two reactors go online, they will be the first to go back into operation since the nuclear crisis.
Kansai Electric, which covers the region including Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, relies on nuclear power for half of the electricity it generates, more than any other electric utility in the nation.
On Feb. 21, government officials stressed that reactors could go online without second-stage approval, as was planned under the stress test.
“(Madarame's comment) is not in conflict with the government’s policy that determines the restart based on the assessment of the results of the first-stage check,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference.
Goshi Hosono, minister in charge of the nuclear disaster, said the law did not give the commission the final say on a restart.
Many critics of nuclear power say clearing the first-stage check is not very difficult, partly because of compromises between Kan, who was insisting on rigorous safety checks when the new system was brought in, and Banri Kaieda, former industry minister who stressed the importance of early restarts.
Meanwhile, Madarame told a Diet panel on Feb. 15 that there were faults in government safety guidelines for the nuclear industry before the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake disaster. He said the guidelines did not anticipate the possibility of a huge tsunami that cut all power sources to a reactor.
“There was fault,” he said. “We have no choice but to admit that we were wrong and express regret as people in charge of overseeing safety regulations.”
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