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Editorial: Can resolve alone qualify TEPCO to operate nuclear reactors?

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has judged that Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) is qualified, under certain conditions, to operate nuclear reactors.

The judgment comes in line with the nuclear watchdog's safety screening of the idled No. 6 and 7 reactors at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture. Technical screening of the reactors has practically finished, and in the near future the NRA is expected to release a draft of screening documents indicating that the reactors have passed new safety standards implemented in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

But when looking closely at the screening process, the foundation for the nuclear watchdog's decision appears flimsy, and we have to say that it lacks persuasiveness.

The NRA's decision to screen TEPCO on its qualifications to operate the reactors was an unusual step not clearly stipulated in the new safety standards. It stems from NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka's judgment that TEPCO, having caused the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, is different from other power companies. It is understandable that an additional, high-level response is being sought from TEPCO.

In July this year, the NRA called in TEPCO officials including the utility's president Tomoaki Kobayakawa, and Tanaka put pressure on them, telling them, "If TEPCO is unwilling or unable to see through the decommissioning of the Fukushima reactors, it is simply not qualified to operate a nuclear power plant." He requested that TEPCO take the initiative in tackling problems such as the accumulation of tainted water on the grounds of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

In response, TEPCO last month submitted a document to the NRA in the name of the president. It stated that the company would "proactively face the parties involved and see through the decommissioning of the reactors," and that it would "deal with decommissioning at the Fukushima plant and safety improvements at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant at the same time." Though the document displayed TEPCO's resolve, it contained no concrete measures on dealing with contaminated water or other such issues.

In spite of this, Tanaka and other officials at the NRA went straight ahead and accepted the document. They took the position that the effectiveness of TEPCO's resolve could be ensured by making the utility express it in nuclear plant safety stipulations, with which operators are obliged to comply.

However, there are no clear standards for evaluating the stance with which TEPCO is tackling decommissioning work and safety countermeasures. Even if the company states its subjective resolve in safety regulations, doubts remain about how much of a binding effect that will have on the utility's actual stance.

In screenings to date there have emerged several findings which cast doubt on TEPCO's fitness to operate reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, including the discovery that the utility did not report to the NRA that the quake resistance of a seismic-isolated building that is supposed to serve as a base for handling accidents was not up to scratch.

Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama has indicated that inspection of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 plant is a priority issue, and so even if the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors pass screening, there are no immediate prospects of being able to restart them. So why is the NRA in such a hurry to reach a conclusion?

Tanaka's tenure as chairman of the NRA will expire this month. One might well think the NRA is rushing to clear reactivation of the reactors before he steps down. If things keep going the way they are, public trust in the NRA as a government nuclear watchdog will only decline.

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