Safety first, but retain nuclear power, says new watchdog chief

September 22, 2012


The head of Japan's new nuclear watchdog said Japan's two functioning reactors should remain active, despite the end of the summer peak demand for electricity.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said he does not want the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture shut down again in the near future.

The two reactors were reactivated in July amid vocal public protests. The government said the restarts would help avert power shortages this summer, usually a time of heavy air conditioner use.

On Sept. 19, the government inaugurated the Nuclear Regulation Authority as part of moves to create more independent oversight of an industry blamed for the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Speaking on Sept. 21 in an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Tanaka also said he plans to introduce a new safety assessment regime for nuclear reactors to guard against other "unforeseeable" emergencies.

But Tanaka stressed that his basic stance on the continued use of nuclear energy remains positive.

Tanaka spoke first about the importance of nuclear disaster preparedness, which he said should be a precondition for restarting idle nuclear reactors.

"Restarts will be extremely difficult unless nuclear disaster response plans are in place so that people in communities nearby can live with peace of mind," Tanaka said.

But he continued: "In legal terms, the responsibility for disaster preparedness lies not with the Nuclear Regulation Authority but with prefectural governments and the central government."

Restarting the reactors at the Oi nuclear plant took place following an evaluation by the government in June.

"It made a political decision following consultations with the Fukui prefectural government and the Oi town government," Tanaka said. "So I will not have them shut down immediately."

No other reactors, from Japan's total of 50, are in use.

But experts have warned that a geological fault line that cuts across the Oi plant site may be active. Kansai Electric Power Co., the plant operator, is conducting geological surveys.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority will conduct a survey of its own and assess the risk. Its commissioner, seismologist Kunihiko Shimazaki, will play a central role in that project, Tanaka said.

If any problem is found, he said, "we would order a shutdown."

He spoke of probabilistic safety assessment, a method to evaluate the likelihood of damage to reactor cores on the assumption that "unforeseeable" severe accidents do occur. That description is one officials applied to circumstances at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in March 2011, when a massive quake and tsunami hit the site and led to one of the world's worst nuclear disasters.

Although probabilistic safety assessment is considered an international standard, in Japan it has so far been used only on a voluntary basis by power utilities.

"It is an effective way to identify challenges," Tanaka said. "I want to incorporate it in the safety regulations from now on."

Tanaka insisted no technology is fully risk-free, and that includes nuclear power.

"The risk is not zero," he said. "In no society is there a situation where scientific technologies have zero risk."

Tanaka said that when he was appointed chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the Fukushima prefectural government warned him against using the word "unforeseeable."

Tanaka emphasized that his attitude toward the general nuclear industry remains positive and optimistic.

"Atomic power is a scientific technology that will remain extremely important for the livelihood of humankind," he said. "It is just essential that we don't use it wrongly."

Tanaka dismissed criticism against his appointment to head the independent watchdog. He hails from Japan's so-called nuclear village, which critics call a too-cozy community of politicians, bureaucrats, businesspeople and academics involved in the nuclear power industry.

"I don't want to be judged by such standards," he said. "People probably wanted me to use whatever I have to cope with the situation that we are facing."

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Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, on Sept. 21 (Shiro Nishihata)

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, on Sept. 21 (Shiro Nishihata)

  • Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, on Sept. 21 (Shiro Nishihata)

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