As Japan prepares to mark five years since the outbreak of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, a court has once again handed down a decision calling for the maximum level of safety at the nation's nuclear power plants.
A temporary injunction issued by the Otsu District Court ordered the suspension of the No. 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. The two reactors had just been reactivated in January and February. Since the court's decision takes effect immediately, Kansai Electric Power Co. will begin work to cease operation of the reactors. And unless the court's decision is quashed or altered through subsequent legal procedures, the reactors cannot be restarted.
It is the second time a court has issued a temporary injunction halting the operation of the nuclear reactors, after the Fukui District Court issued one in April last year. But the latest order is the first to be issued against nuclear reactors currently in operation.
The No. 3 and No. 4 reactors had passed screening under new safety standards adopted by Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). The latest court decision does not go as far as to say that the new standards are irrational. But it does express the view that those standards alone do not guarantee safety.
Lingering behind the court's decision is the perception that investigations into the cause of the Fukushima nuclear disaster have been insufficient. The court pointed out that if the NRA were aware of such insufficiencies, then it raises concerns about the new standards. It added that the power company needed to provide a clear explanation and proof regarding specific doubts -- laying the responsibility of providing proof upon the utility.
The court decision also expressed the view that the formulation of a plan to evacuate residents in the event of a serious nuclear accident was an important prerequisite for restarting a nuclear reactor. It stated that the central government, rather than local bodies, needed to take the lead in quickly formulating a "concrete and perceptible" plan.
Evacuation plans are currently not included in reactor safety screenings. But now the court has called on the government to set far-reaching standards that include evacuation plans, and said that the "responsibility in terms of fair and equitable principles" for setting such standards at this point, with the past experience of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, lies with the central government.
If a serious nuclear accident occurs, residents will evacuate over a wide area beyond prefectural borders. To boost the effectiveness of plans, drills are necessary, but the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Takahama plant were restarted following disaster drills in Fukui Prefecture alone.
The Mainichi Shimbun has stressed that an accident response, including evacuation plans and drills, should be a condition for restarting nuclear reactors. The latest court decision is in line with this. We hope it will be put to use in future safety screenings.
In addition to the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors, the NRA put together what is essentially a passing grade for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the Takahama plant, which have been in operation for over 40 years. Considering that the court's latest decision applies to the newer No. 3 and No. 4 reactors, Kansai Electric Power Co. is likely to be placed in a difficult position as it seeks to reactivate these reactors.
In the meantime, the latest decision calls on the government to rethink its position of trying to push ahead with the restoration of nuclear power without a totally clear overview of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.