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Editorial: Counterterrorism measures urgently needed at nuclear plants

The new safety regulations introduced in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster require operators of nuclear power plants in Japan to set up facilities for cooling nuclear reactors remotely in the event the plants come under terrorist attacks such as aircraft crashing into the complexes.

 

The deadline for installing such anti-terrorism buildings is set at five years after safety screenings on nuclear plants for reactivating reactors have been completed.

 

A total of nine reactors have been restarted in the aftermath of the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011. Those reactors are operated by Kansai Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co. However, none of the nuclear plants hosting the nine reactors has yet to complete counterterrorism facilities.

 

Those power companies had been calling for an extension of the deadline on the grounds that installation of such facilities would require far larger construction work than expected, among other reasons. Yet the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) decided not to comply with their requests.

 

Consequently, the nine reactors are set to be halted due to the absence of anti-terrorism facilities. The NRA’s decision is only natural as we cannot afford any further delays in securing safety at nuclear complexes.

 

The counterterrorism buildings are called facilities for dealing with specific severe accidents and other incidents, and were modeled after measures compiled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the heels of the September 2011 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

 

Under the scheme, the anti-terrorism facilities are to be equipped with an emergency control room, emergency generators and cooling water pumps in order for plant operators to keep cooling reactors remotely in the event of an aircraft crash into reactor buildings, among other scenarios.

 

According to the three power companies, the completion of such facilities for the nine reactors currently online is likely to be delayed for about one year from their respective deadlines.

 

Among them, the deadline will first hit the No. 1 reactor at Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture in southwestern Japan, in March 2020.

 

While the utilities have insisted that existing main facilities can fulfill functions necessary to counter terrorism in their documents submitted to the NRA, there is obviously no end to safety measures. If we cut corners in our response, it could bring grave consequences. This is the hard lesson we learned from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.

 

The construction of a counterterrorism facility for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the Sendai plant is estimated to cost over 200 billion yen. The plant operator may well deserve criticism that it has prioritized reactor reactivation while putting enhanced safety measures on the back burner.

 

The deadline for setting up counterterrorism facilities was already extended once before. Originally, the deadline was set at five years from 2013, when the new regulatory standards for nuclear plant safety were adopted. This was extended to five years from the screenings on nuclear plant construction plans, as safety examinations of those facilities ahead of reactor restarts had been prolonged.

 

Essentially, anti-terror facilities must be established before reactors are brought back online. If the NRA had accepted another extension of the deadline, the agency’s raison d’etre would have been called into question.

 

It has been proved after the 2011 nuclear disaster that electricity would not be in short supply even if nuclear reactors are suspended. We should take the NRA’s latest decision as an opportunity to reconsider how vulnerable atomic power stations are when it comes to countering terrorism.

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