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Editorial: Conflicting court rulings show judiciary’s misstep on reactors

  • March 20, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:46 p.m.
  • English Press

Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture (Hiroki Endo)


The Mito District Court on March 18 struck down a plan to restart the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture in a ruling designed to set up a protective barrier against reactor operations while doubts persist about the effectiveness of local government evacuation plans.


The court decision came as a warning against a lack of sufficient preparedness for a severe nuclear accident, a problem that has long gone unheeded. Both the government and other parties involved should take the ruling seriously.


The single-reactor plant has been offline since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Japan Atomic Power Co., which operates the plant, is seeking bring the reactor back online after it completes work to install safety measures in December next year. The company appealed the ruling, but it should not be allowed to go ahead with the plan in haste.


The court examined whether the 14 local governments in areas within 30 kilometers of the plant have effective and reliable evacuation plans as legally required. Nine of them have yet to work out plans for emergency evacuations of local residents in response to a serious nuclear accident. The five others have crafted steps but there are many serious shortcomings in their blueprints, according to the ruling.


One problem cited by the court is a failure to offer specific ideas about how local residents should take refuge indoors in case their homes are destroyed. Another is that the plans are devoid of means to provide information about disruptions in road traffic to local residents. The ruling also pointed out that the plans do not designate multiple evacuation routes to deal with potential risks posed by major natural disasters.


The court concluded that the local administrations lack any effective plan to respond to a nuclear disaster as well as the capability to carry out an emergency evacuation.


The Tokai No. 2 plant operates the only commercial nuclear reactor in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Around 940,000 people live within 30 km of the facility, the largest population within the 30-km radius of any nuclear plant in Japan.


The ruling referred to the difficulty of ensuring safe and swift evacuation of local residents in such a densely populated area. This means it is unrealistic to continue operating a reactor in this region.


It should also be noted that a lack of an effective and reliable evacuation plan is not a problem unique to the plant in Ibaraki Prefecture.


Many nuclear host communities are facing evacuation problems related to routes and transportation means, including areas along Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture, home to many reactors, and remote islands and areas in the depths of a peninsula close to a nuclear plant.


Following the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2011, the government made it mandatory for local governments within a 30-km radius of a nuclear plant to develop evacuation plans.


The local administrations are primarily responsible for the work, with the central government playing only a supportive role. The Nuclear Regulation Authority, the nuclear safety watchdog, is not involved in working out the details and specifics of evacuation plans.


The court ruling also underscored limitations in the current system to map out evacuation plans.


It is imperative to consider a new system under which the central and local governments work together to formulate evacuation plans and an independent entity to evaluate their effectiveness.


On the day of the ruling, the Hiroshima High Court handed down one that stood in sharp contrast. The high court decision paved the way for Shikoku Electric Power Co. to restart the No. 3 reactor at its Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture.


It is hard to accept the high court’s argument that places the burden of proof on local residents in demonstrating there are specific risks that justify a court injunction against the operation of the reactor.


Many past court rulings, in line with precedents set by the Supreme Court, have placed the burden of proof of safety on the central government and electric utilities, which have huge amounts of related information at their disposal.


Thus, it is hardly surprising that the plaintiffs roundly criticized the high court ruling for “effectively closing the door” on any legal attempt to stop the start of the reactor operations. The decision called into serious question the judiciary’s stance toward the matter.


–The Asahi Shimbun, March 20

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