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Extending legal life of nuclear reactors places safety at risk

Shinsuke Yamanaka, new chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, speaks at his inaugural news conference in Tokyo on Sept. 26.

October 7, 2022

The industry ministry’s plan to allow extending the operational life span of nuclear reactors beyond 40 years raises concerns about ensuring the safety of aging reactors.

The cap was a rule established under a bipartisan agreement reached through Diet debate that focused on the bitter lessons learned from the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011. It must not be casually changed after only 10 years.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has started considering revisions to related laws to stretch the life span of reactors, which is set at 40 years, in principle.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is keen to expand the use of nuclear power, instructed the ministry in August to consider necessary steps for extending the life span, along with other measures, such as restarting more idled reactors and building new types of reactors.

The 40-year rule is one of the key elements of the new stricter safety standards introduced after the Fukushima disaster. This has also played an important role for gradually lowering the nation’s dependence on atomic energy by requiring older reactors to be mothballed.

The METI and the power industry claim extending reactor operations would help ensure stable energy supplies. They stress that the 40-year cap is not strictly a question of the technical life of the plant based on hard science.

Their arguments are deeply flawed and flimsy. They raise many questions from the standpoints of both the nation’s energy strategy and safety regulations.

To be sure, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused fossil fuel prices to soar, provoking anxiety about short-term power supplies. But changing the 40-year rule would not lead to an immediate increase in the number of operational reactors.

However, the step would put the nation on course to remain heavily dependent on nuclear power for the long term.

That is not the way for a nation that has yet to have a viable plan for the final disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear plants and is highly prone to natural disasters to try to secure the long-term stability of energy supplies.

The proposed extension could also lead to a radical change in a basic safety principle. The core guiding principle for nuclear power policy established after the Fukushima triple meltdowns requires a separation between promotion and regulation.

The actions of the METI, a champion of nuclear power promotion, to lead a policy initiative to change nuclear safety rules is tantamount to bringing the safety regime back to the pre-Fukushima era.

The stance of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), the nuclear safety watchdog, is also baffling.

The NRA did not take exception to the METI’s plan. It said it is not in a position to comment on whether an extension of the life span of reactors should be allowed because it is a policy decision concerning the way nuclear power is used.

Although the NRA insists that it will rigorously scrutinize and assess the safety of aging reactors individually, it is doubtful whether the regulator will be able to confirm their safety.

Limiting the life of reactors is closely linked to ensuring safety.

During the 2012 Diet deliberations on the legal revisions to set the 40-year rule, the minister in charge of nuclear power policy cited the estimated useful life of equipment used as a key factor behind the 40-year limit.

If the NRA fails to discuss the validity of the 40-year rule based on technical evaluations and simply endorses the proposal as a policy decision concerning the use of nuclear power, it is neglecting its duty as an independent regulatory entity.

Such a sneaky change in the rules will chip away at the effectiveness of the nuclear safety regulations. Both the METI and the NRA should change their stances toward the issue.


October 8, 2022 - Posted by | Fuk 2022 | ,

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