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Editorial: No guarantee of safety with end to Takahama reactor restart injunction

The Fukui District Court on Dec. 24 revoked a provisional injunction banning the restart of the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. Since Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO), the operator of the power station, has gained consent from the local community to restart the reactors, the utility is set to begin preparations to resume operations. The move would follow the reactivation of the No. 1 and 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai plant.

    The court made the decision in response to an appeal that KEPCO filed against the provisional injunction -- which had been issued by another presiding judge at the same court in April this year. The point of contention during hearings was whether the green light that the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) issued to the planned reactivation -- based on its inspection on the reactors under the new regulatory standards -- is rational.

    The court determined that the inspection the NRA conducted on the reactors was legitimate, noting that the NRA's evaluation of the quake-resistance of the nuclear complex reflects the latest scientific and technological knowledge and that the authority has advanced expertise and is fully independent. The court thus upheld KEPCO's assertions and concluded that no problem involving the plant's safety can be found.

    In contrast, the provisional injunction had stated that the new regulatory standards must be strict enough to ensure that a serious nuclear accident never occurs based on the notion that nuclear plants must not be operated if there is even a small risk of an accident.

    The latest decision overturned this idea. Courts remain divided over levels of safety that nuclear plants need following the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011.

    Courts had been reluctant to evaluate of the safety of nuclear plants. A ruling that the Supreme Court handed down on a lawsuit on Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata nuclear plant in 1992 expressed its view that the evaluation of the safety of atomic power stations "requires the latest scientific, technological and comprehensive judgment, and is left to the discretion of rational judgment by the administrative branch." This framework had been maintained until the outbreak of the nuclear disaster.

    However, the accident at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. demonstrated that an accident could occur at a nuclear plant even if it passes an inspection by the national government. Courts now need to more strictly examine safety evaluations of nuclear plants by the executive branch.

    The presiding judge who issued the provisional injunction banning the restart of the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Takahama plant also handed down a ruling in May last year prohibiting KEPCO from reactivating the No. 3 and 4 reactors at its Oi plant.

    In his ruling on the lawsuit regarding the Oi plant, the presiding judge prioritized local residents' personal rights to protect their lives and stated that operations at nuclear plants "can be banned as long as there are specific risks, even if the risks are low."

    While dismissing a petition for a provisional injunction to ban operations at the Oi and Takahama plants, the Otsu District Court warned in November last year against attempts to hastily restart idled nuclear reactors. "It's impossible to restart reactors as long as no progress is made on the compilation of evacuation plans."

    Meanwhile, the Kagoshima District Court ruled in April this year in dismissing a petition for a ban on the restart of the Sendai nuclear plant that there is no irrationality in the new safety standards and that an inspection the NRA conducted on the plant was appropriate. The latest Fukui District Court decision also endorses the NRA's broad discretionary power. As such, courts are tending to go back to their passive attitude toward safety evaluations of nuclear plants.

    Following the court's decision, KEPCO inserted nuclear fuel into the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama plant with an aim of restarting it in late January 2016. The Fukui District Court cautioned in its latest decision that the green light given by the NRA to the restart of the Takahama reactors "does not rule out the possibility that a serious accident will occur" at the power station. The court thus urged the national government and power companies to implement countermeasures against such disasters, including the compilation of evacuation plans for local residents. Without taking such steps, utilities should not be allowed to restart their idled nuclear reactors.

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