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Editorial: NRA decision on aging reactors is irresponsible and unnecessary

  • November 17, 2016
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 14:30
  • English Press

The Nuclear Regulation Authority on Nov. 16 gave the green light to Kansai Electric Power Co.’s application to extend operations of the aging No. 3 reactor at its Mihama nuclear power plant for up to 20 years. The plant in Fukui Prefecture will reach its 40-year-lifespan at the end of the month.

 

The Mihama No. 3 unit is the third reactor to be granted a license renewal by the nuclear safety watchdog following the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the same utility’s Takahama nuclear power plant, also in Fukui Prefecture.

 

In the aftermath of the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, the law was revised to set 40 years, in principle, as the lifespan of nuclear reactors. The licenses for reactor operations can be renewed once for up to an additional 20 years, but license renewal is supposed to be highly exceptional.

 

We are deeply concerned that the NRA’s decision to approve the extended operation of an aging reactor could set a trend, gradually eviscerating the principle. We feel obliged to express again our opposition to the decision.

 

There are reactors that have been in service for more than 40 years in the United States and Europe. But experts have warned about a possible significant decline in the level of safety due to such aging issues as deterioration of the reactor vessel, which cannot be replaced.

 

The No. 3 reactor at the Mihama nuclear plant had a serious accident in 2004 when 11 workers were killed or injured by high temperature steam blowing out of a worn-out pipe in a turbine facility.

 

One of the factors behind the deadly accident was inadequate inspection over many years.

Older nuclear power plants require more careful maintenance and safety checks.

 

The extended operation of the aging reactors will impose a heavy burden on Kansai Electric Power, which is responsible for securing their safety.

 

The utility has promised to raise its estimation of ground motion due to possible earthquakes that might strike areas around the plants and take appropriate measures to bolster the quake-resistance of the reactors by spring 2020. It will also have to take additional safety measures, including steps to make electric cables less flammable.

 

The company will have to spend more than 380 billion yen ($3.47 billion) to meet the requirements to extend the operation of the three reactors. This sum doesn’t include the costs of building new facilities to respond to terrorist attacks required under the new stricter safety standards.

 

The amount of money involved could have covered the entire cost of building a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant before the Fukushima disaster.

 

Still, Kansai Electric Power claims the massive investment makes economic sense. It said it plans to also seek license renewal for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at its Oi nuclear power plant, which will reach the 40-year legal lifespan in three years.

 

Of the 11 reactors it owns, the utility has decided to decommission only the two oldest–the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the Mihama plant.

 

Before the 2011 accident, Kansai Electric Power promised local communities that it would replace the aging Mihama No. 3 reactor with a new one. This promise seems to have played a role in its decision to keep the Mihama No. 3 unit running.

 

The license renewals offer no respite from concerns about the situation in areas around Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture, which are dotted with many aging reactors.

Instead of making decisions only from a business point of view, the utility should opt to decommission these reactors to lower the risk of nuclear accidents.

 

The NRA’s stance toward the issue is also questionable.

 

The three reactors at the Takahama and Mihama plants faced decommissioning unless their licenses were renewed before the expiration of the 40-year term.

 

The NRA gave precedence to the inspections of these reactors for license renewal and allowed the utility to delay required earthquake-resistance tests for important equipment until after the completion of the planned work.

 

These actions indicate the nuclear regulator tried to complete the license renewal review process before the expiry dates kicked in.

 

The pools for storing spent nuclear fuel at the nuclear plants operated by Kansai Electric Power are close to reaching their capacity.

 

The utility says it will build an interim storage facility outside Fukui Prefecture. But there is no workable and specific plan to realize this idea.

 

The utility is acting in an irresponsible manner by deciding to extend the operation of these aging reactors without solving the key problem.

 

The catastrophic accident at the Fukushima plant has radically changed the Japanese public’s perceptions of nuclear power generation.

 

It is hard to believe that continued use of old reactors will open up a new energy future for this nation.

 

Kansai Electric Power should stop to reconsider whether extending the operation of these reactors is really necessary.

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