Time to transform Japan’s nuclear plant inspection system
Japan lies at the middle of 4 tectonic plates. The pressure of the plates has produced 113 active fault lines in Japan’s crust. It has also 118 active volcanoes. 10% of the world earthquakes occur in Japan.
To talk about nuclear safety there is like taking bets with people lives, is like talking about a death wish.
The government has submitted to the Diet a bill to revise the Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors. The bill includes the introduction of surprise inspections at nuclear plants by inspectors from the Secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which would allow them to enter any part of a nuclear plant at any time, as well as a system where the state gives an overall evaluation to each plant based on the results of the inspections and other factors and release the data. These new systems are expected to come into operation in fiscal 2020.
With surprise inspections, it will be difficult for power companies to hide problems at their nuclear plants. And since evaluation results will be published and comparison among nuclear plants will be possible, the principle of competition comes into play, which is expected to encourage utilities to voluntarily develop safety measures at their own plants.
In the meantime, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) should work on boosting the number of nuclear plant inspectors and training such officials so that the revisions will lead to the improvement of nuclear plant safety.
The NRA was established in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant and new safety standards subsequently came into effect. Restarts of idled nuclear reactors based on the new standards are underway. At the same time, reviews on nuclear plant inspection systems had been put on the back burner.
The pillars of nuclear plant inspections conducted by the government and power companies are regular checkups, which are carried out about once every 13 months, and security examinations done four times a year. With regular inspections, facilities with higher levels of importance are screened, while security examinations mainly judge whether a nuclear plant is operated safely.
The dates and contents of these checks are set prior to the actual inspections, however, and the system lacks flexibility, preventing the government from acting on a case-by-case basis to check problems at each plant.
NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said that there is corporate culture within power companies where they think their nuclear plants are fine as long as they pass safety checks by government regulators. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also pointed out that this way of thinking is problematic and the agency recommended Japanese authorities improve nuclear plant inspection systems in the pre-disaster year of 2007 and again in January 2016.
Under the proposed bill, the division of roles shared by the government and power companies will be clarified. Utilities would be solely responsible for making sure that facilities at their nuclear plants meet safety standards, while the government would take the role of a watchdog, monitoring power companies’ safety measures and how inspections are being carried out to give an overall evaluation for each plant. The results of surprise inspections will be included in a nuclear plant’s overall grade, which will be reflected in the next inspection.
The new inspection system was inspired by those employed in the United States and other countries with nuclear power. While Japan will catch up with those countries in terms of the system after the law is revised, that alone is not enough.
In the United States, where around 100 nuclear reactors are in operation, there are some 1,000 inspectors at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and they undergo a two-year training program. In Japan, on the other hand, there are only around 100 inspectors for more than 40 reactors, and they receive a mere two weeks of training.
Unless the quality and quantity of the nuclear plant inspectors are secured, the effectiveness of the new system would become questionable.
Furthermore, the overall grades for each nuclear plant should be released in a way to make it easier for the public to understand. The government should also consider ways to make good use of the system such as changing the premiums of liability insurance policies for potential nuclear accidents depending on the nuclear plants’ safety grades.
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