Is Kyushu Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) really taking nuclear safety seriously? Such misgivings arise when we consider the utility's decision to scrap plans to build a seismically isolated facility at its Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture.
When it applied for safety screening for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the plant, KEPCO promised to build a seismically isolated emergency response center that was to serve as a frontline base in the event of a nuclear accident. Later, however, the company decided it would make do with an existing quake-resistant facility, and it applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) at the end of last year to alter its plans.
KEPCO has no experience obtaining government permission and building a seismically isolated nuclear power facility, and told the NRA that if it were to instead use a quake-resistant facility with which it has plenty of experience, it would be possible to begin operations at an early date, thereby enhancing safety. Yet it has not actually stated when it would be able to begin operating the quake-resistant facility.
The NRA views the power company's turnabout negatively, and has asked KEPCO to resubmit its application, on the basis that it lacks grounds for its claim.
In August last year, the No. 1 reactor at the Sendai Nuclear Power plant was reactivated, becoming the first to be restarted after passing new safety standards implemented in the wake of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. The plant's No. 2 reactor was similarly reactivated in October. When KEPCO applied to the NRA for safety screening, the utility had promised that it would build an important base-isolated structure, aiming to complete it sometime around this fiscal year. Inside the structure, it was to establish an emergency response center with a floor space of about 620 square meters. It said it would temporarily use a substitute quake-resistant facility with a floor space of about 170 square meters while the base-isolated structure was being built.
Quake-resistant structures are built to withstand the shaking of temblors. Seismically isolated buildings, on the other hand, use buffers to absorb the shaking. This system makes it harder for equipment inside to be damaged and has the advantage of allowing workers to move smoothly even if aftershocks occur. When the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred, a seismically isolated structure became a base for handling the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and its importance became widely recognized.
Under KEPCO's new plan, the substitute response center would be upgraded to a regular response center, and a quake-resistant facility that could provide support with a rest facility and medical office would be set up alongside it.
KEPCO stresses that it would be able to secure a level of safety at least on par with a seismically isolated building. But changing its plans after restarting the reactors represents a breach of faith toward the NRA. It's like putting one's hand out in a game of rock, paper, scissors after the other player has already revealed their move. KEPCO has similarly declared that it will take its plan to build a seismically isolated structure at its Genkai Nuclear Power Plant back to the drawing board, sparking a backlash from a local municipality.
Under new standards, there is admittedly no regulation requiring emergency response centers to be seismically isolated -- as long as the functions of a quake-resistant structure can be maintained in an earthquake.
However, utilities have a responsibility to constantly work at improving safety -- not being satisfied with merely passing the standard. Saying, "We have no experience so we can't do it" is no excuse.
It would appear in this case, that safety is taking a back seat to costs and ease of construction. KEPCO needs to carefully respond to these kinds of misgivings and state in concrete terms why safety would improve under the changed plans. If it can't do that, then it should give up on changing the original plans.