Mini-Roundup: Nuclear Regulation Authority’s New Safety Regulations

Last week, on June 19, Japan’s nuclear regulatory authority (NRA) released new safety requirements for the restart of 48 idled nuclear reactors. These legally binding regulations start the process to allow some nuclear reactors to restart next year. Applications to restart nuclear reactors can be filed as early as July 8 and will continue until the end of the month. Thirteen applications are expected, according to The New York Times. They will include five of Japan’s power utilities, according to this factsheet compiled by Reuters.

The new safety regulations oblige nuclear operators to protect against more severe accidents than ever before, reports Jiji Press. “Under the new standards, operators must fully shield nuclear plants from the biggest tsunami forecast by seismologists. If any section of a plant’s premises is forecast to be submerged, operators must build seawalls with the same level of seismic resistance required for nuclear reactor buildings,” according to the story. Operators must also build secondary control centers that are set apart from the power plant. Under the new rules, operators have a five-year grace period to install the new centers.

The NRA is paying special attention to protection against earthquakes. Nuclear power plants are not allowed to build on active earthquake faults. While the definition of an active fault is unchanged, it is not imperative for the operator to prove that there has been no seismic activity over the past 130,000 years. If seismic activity cannot be ruled out, then the operator must show that there have been no signs of fault movement up to 400,000 years ago.

The prospect of restarting nuclear power plants is heartening for nuclear utilities who have, since 2011, shouldered an annual industry operating loss of USD $16 billion. Reuters reports that by business standards, Japanese power utilities are considered bankrupt and not liable for commercial bank loans. Meanwhile the cost of upgrading the power plants to new stringent earthquake and tsunami standards is predicted to cost an additional USD $12 billion. But even if utilities manage to meet the new regulations, it does not guarantee their application will be granted.

“Utilities cannot be optimistic at all about restarts because their need for restarts is confronted with the NRA’s need to show they are tough in order to gain credibility with the public,” said Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear energy analyst based in Paris who frequently visits Japan.

Nuclear power critics remain opposed to the restart of nuclear power plants and are suspicious that the NRA is susceptible to political and industry pressure, reports The Miami Herald. “Wednesday’s decision setting the launch date for the new safety requirements came nearly two weeks ahead of the legal deadline, prompting critics to suspect industrial and political pressure so that utilities can restart their reactors as quickly as possible.”

“Obviously it’s a product of rushed work just to make it in time,” said Hiromitsu Ino, a nuclear expert and professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. “If the new requirement is primarily to prevent another Fukushima disaster, they should have waited until they find more about what happened and learn all the lessons.”

Additional links and information are listed below. Click here for a translation of the draft safety regulations.

  • “Tougher rules for Japanese nuclear plants,” Deutsche Welle24 June 2013. Short interview with Michael Maqua, head of the plant engineering department at GRS, a German-based organization specializing in the fields of nuclear safety and radioactive waste management. Dr. Maqua explains how the new guidelines may pave the way for the country’s offline reactors to restart.
  • Nuclear Regulation Authority (available in JapaneseEnglish). Nuclear Regulation Authority website page from Japan Daily Press with news coverage and analysis of post-Fukushima regulatory process.
  • Japan Daily Press (available in English). Nuclear Regulation Authority website page from Japan Daily Press with news coverage and analysis of post-Fukushima regulatory process.