EDITORIAL: Nuclear Regulation Authority’s integrity being put to the test

November 12, 2012

Inspectors with the Nuclear Regulation Authority will carry out checks at three additional locations in the compound of the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture to determine whether a fault running beneath the site is active or not.

In one of the locations, a trench will be dug up to 150 meters to the east and 150 meters to the west from the fault line. The inspectors want to ascertain the exact location of the “F-6 fault,” which is suspected to be active. It is unlikely the survey will be completed before the year-end.

Gathering appropriate scientific data is an appropriate way to come up with a trustworthy risk evaluation.

The area in the southern part of the compound, where the new trenches will be dug, is close to the buildings that house reactors. There will be a lot of activity there, in terms of people and vehicles coming and going, while the work is going on. This has triggered concerns that the survey work will block routes earmarked for evacuation in case of an emergency.

Given the concern, the reactor operations should be suspended before the new survey work starts.

The F-6 fault runs between the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors, and lies directly beneath an emergency water intake channel, which is a key part of the facility.

The NRA is empowered to require nuclear power plant operators to suspend reactor operations if faults are determined to be active.

At present, the nuclear reactors are operating despite fears the fault is active. If the inspection work takes months to complete, can it be said that the NRA is truly paying attention to safety?

The Oi nuclear power plant resumed operations earlier this year based on a provisional safety assessment to meet the growing demand in summer. As the peak demand season has already passed, the operations should now be suspended. The NRA should require the suspension of operations as a precaution.

The inspections are being done because the data submitted by Kansai Electric Power Co., operator of the Oi nuclear power plant, was insufficient. The NRA, which only came into being in September, has no choice but to accept much of the data of electric power companies when it comes to safety issues. Additional surveys will also have to rely heavily on KEPCO’s works.

KEPCO is hoping to continue operating nuclear reactors. But if the inspection work proceeds at a pace set by the company, it is hardly likely to win public trust.

The NRA has had to repeatedly correct diagrams it created based on data from electric power companies in coming up with a forecast on the proliferation of radioactive materials in case of catastrophic accidents at nuclear power plants. The nuclear watchdog says it will thoroughly scrutinize the diagrams again.

In matters related to safety, the NRA must draw a clear line between itself and electric power companies and the so-called nuclear village, in which people within the power industry--along with politicians and government officials overseeing the industry--pursue vested interests based on nuclear power generation. Only by keeping its distance can the NRA ensure its impartiality and reliability.

At the same time, the regulatory body needs to swiftly establish a system to check safety-related information independently. If the NRA is perceived as being cozy with the utilities and the nuclear village, it could find itself in the same situation as the one that plagued its predecessor, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The NRA was established on the basis that it would exercise its authority independently in a neutral fashion based on expert knowledge, assuming that accidents could occur at any time. Is the regulatory body able to fulfill this mission? Its survey work at the Oi nuclear power plant will be the touchstone of its integrity.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 11

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