The Yomiuri ShimbunTo ensure the safe operation of the nation’s nuclear power plants, it is important that regulatory authorities and electric power companies work together and endeavor to reduce potential risks.
In August, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) reviewed its method for assessing the ability of nuclear plants to withstand earthquakes. The NRA changed the method for calculating how much shaking could be expected if an earthquake struck in an active fault whose existence had not been previously known.
Until now, these predictions had been calculated based on the representative example of an earthquake that jolted Hokkaido in 2004. However, the accuracy of these calculations has been boosted by using observation data from 89 earthquakes that have occurred since 2000. This can be considered a pertinent step for improving the quake-resistance of nuclear power plants.
The new method is expected to also be applied retroactively to nuclear plants that already have resumed operations. Consequently, if the shaking expected at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture and Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture greatly exceeds current projections, the utility could be forced to take additional measures against earthquakes.
These nuclear plants will be mothballed if the NRA refuses to authorize their operation until these new quake-resistance measures are completed. The stable supply of electricity will be impaired, and this could lead to higher power bills. The NRA should make decisions after carefully examining various impacts that could result.
The NRA, which was established after the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, has hammered out several sets of new regulations. In April, it decided on a plan under which it would shut down nuclear plants that had not finished constructing anti-terrorism facilities by the set deadline. There are concerns the nine reactors that are back online could be switched off one by one as the deadline approaches.
Better communication needed
The common thread running through existing nuclear plant regulations is the belief that additional measures, based on new knowledge and other information, should be firmly demanded. While this is indeed necessary to ensure every safety step is taken, it is undeniable that power companies are constantly being pressed to implement measures and are taking a passive approach from start to finish.
In general, there is insufficient communication between the NRA and the electric power industry.
Power utilities are thoroughly familiar with each power plant’s special characteristics and weaknesses. Ideally, the NRA would hold regular talks with the power industry and draw up realistic, effective safety measures.
In its principles of good regulation, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission clearly states an approach under which “opinions must be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public.” As a result of the commission’s respect for the industry’s autonomy, minor problems at nuclear plant facilities reportedly have decreased.
Perhaps the time has come for the NRA to reconsider how it should handle regulations covering power companies.
Of course, power utilities also must keep in mind the fact that public distrust toward the safety of nuclear plants has not been erased. Rather than simply aiming to just pass the NRA’s safety inspections, power companies must take a stance that involves seeking out problems themselves and steadily making improvements to their facilities.