Japan to continue attempts to restart nuclear reactors prior to launching new nuclear safety agency

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“I cannot believe this is how the restart of the Oi reactors is going to happen.”

All of Japan’s nuclear power plants have been required to undergo two-phase stress tests following the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The initial phase of the stress tests to examine the safety margin of important pieces of equipment were to be carried out while reactors are shut down for inspections, and intended to determine whether the Japanese government will allow the reactor to resume operations. The second phase of the tests does not require the nuclear reactors to be shut down while the tests are carried out.

Japan had planned to launch a new nuclear regulator on April 1st, after the collusion and disregard for safety found in discredited predecessors, NISA and NSC, however little progress has been made in Diet deliberations on the required bills.  A Reuters poll showed most Japanese mayors and governors whose communities host nuclear plants want fresh safety assurances beyond government-imposed stress tests before agreeing to the restart of reactors taken off line after the Fukushima crisis.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono told reporters on Friday that he is disappointed about the delay, since boosting nuclear safety is the strong wish of the Japanese people, and the international community is closely watching Japan’s nuclear safety measures.

“I have felt expertise, knowledge and maturity of the forces at Japanese institutions, at NISA, aren’t necessarily sufficient, compared to what they have in other countries like the U.S. and France,” Nobuaki Terasaka, NISA’s chief during the initial months of the crisis, told a Japanese parliamentary probe committee in February.

Japan’s nuclear-plant operators say that new agency or not, they will continue to push for rapid restarts of reactors idled in the wake of last year’s earthquake.

Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission on Friday endorsed computer-simulated stress tests on Kansai Electric Power’s No.3 and No.4 reactors in the town of Ohi in Fukui prefecture, clearing the way for the premier and three other ministers to meet on the restarts. Japan’s embattled safety agencies have faced a barrage of criticism by taking one questionable action after another.  Many critical opinions posted in the press say that the collusion between the nuclear  industry and its regulators, who also promote it, will not substantially differ from its predecessors without a drastic overhaul of the entire government model.

One of the most undefensible actions being made is the fact that the loss of evacuees who will not be able to return to their homes or search for  the bodies of those not yet found or even cherish the photos and other sentimental items forever destroyed in the tsunami, are not taken account for in Japan’s cost/benefit analysis, let alone compensation guidelines for the nuclear industry.

Do the government officials, safety agencies, and utilities  lack  the necessary critical attitudes in conducting their respective duties? In truth, much if not most of the nation’s response has been undeniably tardy, and often missing the mark, adding to the perception of an arrogance of an industry that enjoys a monopoly unlike any other.  The industry has repeatedly borne severe criticism for allowing regulators to become too cozy with nuclear-plant operators, and not taking their oversight role seriously enough.

Over a year has passed since the onset of the March 11th disaster, but at Fukushima Daiichi, workers are still  pouring water on top of the damaged/molten fuel at an average rate of several tons an hour.  Recent inspections into the containment of Reactor 2 have shown that all of the water is flowing out of containment and into the basement of the building, and has been for the better part of the last year.  This could lead to the future discovery of severe contamination in the basement of the reactor building, and possibly the ground around it as the leaking foundations admittedly to not prevent the passing of water in all areas.

It is clear following this initial period of “stress tests”,  most countries aside from Germany, Italy and Switzerland will continue with their nuclear programs. Even Japan’s legislators and officials continue to assess the best way forward in terms of its energy mix, although  the public remains, for understandable reasons, very opposed to the use of nuclear power.  One of the largest reasons for concern for those living near Japanese nuclear plants, are insufficient emergency plans for millions of people living near reactors nationwide, which are still far below international standards.

Japan’s current regulators will continue their oversight roles until parliament approves an overhaul.  Any appreciable delay in creating and empowering the new nuclear safety agency, would create a nearly impossible mountain of measures designed to strengthen plant safety criteria , in such proportions that it could not be easily assumed to successfully accomplish its mission.

These recent announcements regarding nuclear safety appeared on the same day that the Japanese Prime Minister warned a nuclear security summit about Japan’s “lessons learned” from the nuclear disaster, adding that the world must not be lulled into a ”myth of safety”, following lessons learnt from the tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

Yoshihiko Noda said a ”man-caused act of sabotage will test our imaginations far more than any natural disaster”.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has previously admitted that the country was caught off-guard by the Fukushima accident, but did not comment on whether safety concerns will change Japan’s nuclear-energy policy.

US President Barack Obama, who convened the first Nuclear Security Summit two years ago, yesterday underscored the risks of nuclear material falling into the hands of ”bad actors”.

”It would not take much – just a handful or so of these materials – to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people,” he said.

The energy landscape may be about to change in ways that end the need for nuclear power;  the black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept that an event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.

Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato has stated he wants his region to become a model for a nuclear-free society.  Tatsuya Murakami, the mayor of Tokai village northeast of Tokyo, said he was opposed to restarts because Japan lacked policies to ensure nuclear safety.  The Fukushima disaster exposed the vulnerabilities of nuclear energy after a loss of offsite power event.   Murakami has been calling for scrapping unlisted Japan Atomic power’s Tokai Daini plant.

Identifying a black swan event

  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major impact.
  3. After its first recording, the event is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected (e.g., the relevant data were available but not accounted for).

It is amazing to see that after three commercial nuclear disasters in under 50 years, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, no nuclear power plant was closed in direct response to lessons learned from the disasters. Can we truly understand nuclear safety without considering “wild events” outside of the realms of previously-thought possible,  and without developing less conservatively modeled severe accident scenarios?

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