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Court questions credibility of safety standards as it orders suspension of 2 reactors

The No. 3 (front) and No. 4 reactors at the Takahama Nuclear Power Plant are seen in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, on Feb. 29, 2016. (Mainichi)

The Otsu District Court's latest decision to issue a provisional injunction ordering Kansai Electric Power Co. to suspend operations at two reactors at its Takahama Nuclear Power Plant could affect efforts by utilities to reactivate other nuclear reactors that have been put offline in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

    It was the first injunction to be issued by a Japanese court for nuclear reactors that were reactivated after clearing what the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) calls the "world's strictest" safety standards adopted after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As a result of evacuation areas for residents being expanded in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, lawsuits seeking injunctions against operating nuclear reactors have been filed not only in the prefectures hosting atomic facilities but also in their neighboring prefectures, threatening to affect reactivations of reactors at other nuclear plants.

    Court decisions over the Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture have flip-flopped in the past. In April 2015, the Fukui District Court issued a provisional injunction ordering Kansai Electric to stop operating the two reactors. But the court decided to lift the injunction after examining the utility's objection in December 2015, paving the way for Kansai Electric to reactive the reactors. On March 9, the Otsu District Court issued a fresh provisional injunction ordering the utility to halt operations of the two reactors.

    The key point of the courts' decisions stemmed from the interpretation of the Supreme Court's ruling in 1992 over the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant run by Shikoku Electric Power Co. The ruling has been regarded as a model case for lawsuits filed in recent years over nuclear reactors. It is based on the notion that decisions over the safety of nuclear reactors are virtually left to administrative judgment, and the national government and relevant utilities are responsible for verifying the safety of their reactors.

    The first ruling by the Fukui District Court to order Kansai Electric to halt the operations of the Takahama reactors did not touch on whether utilities such as Kansai Electric were held responsible to verify the safety of their reactors, But it pointed out that the "new standards lack rationality."

    The two subsequent court decisions, however, were completely opposite to each other over whether power companies are responsible to verify the safety of their reactors. The Fukui District Court's examination panel on objections, that allowed the utility to reactivate the two reactors, stated that "Kansai Electric's responsibility to verify (the safety of the reactors) has sufficiently been fulfilled." The decision paved the way for the reactivation in January this year of the No. 3 reactor at the Takahama plant. However, while adhering to the Supreme Court's ruling on the Ikata nuclear plant, the Otsu District Court clearly stated, "Kansai Electric has not fully verified (the safety of the reactors) and it is assumed that there are irrational points." It also repeatedly criticized the utility's lack of explanations, saying, "Kansai Electric should present how it has strengthened its safety measures and how it has responded in light of the Fukushima accident."

    As for investigations into the causes of the Fukushima disaster, the Otsu District Court stipulated, "The investigations have not moved forward and they are half way through." It went on to criticize the NRA, which compiled the new safety standards, stating, "Investigating the causes of the accident is absolutely necessary to ensure the safety (of nuclear reactors), but if no care is taken over such points, we feel very uneasy (about nuclear reactor safety)." It added, "We must say we are hesitant about reactors immediately becoming a foundation for public peace even if they pass (the new safety standards)."

    The Otsu District Court also made reference to the insufficiency of evacuation plans in the event of a nuclear accident. Evacuation plans are not subject to the NRA's safety screening. The central government has no functions to check them, either. The Otsu court emphasized, "There is a need for the government to take the lead in drawing up concrete evacuation plans at an early date."

    The latest ruling came after residents of Shiga Prefecture filed a lawsuit seeking a provisional injunction against the operation of the nuclear reactors in the adjoining Fukui Prefecture. The court accepted the plaintiffs' demands, underscoring the trend toward lawsuits being filed in wider areas.

    Prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, most of the designated evacuation areas were those within an 8- to 10-kilometer radius of nuclear plants. But in response to the Fukushima accident, the central government expanded such evacuation areas to a 30- kilometer radius of a nuclear power plant. Part of Shiga Prefecture falls within a 30-kilometer radius of the Takahama nuclear plant. The plaintiffs argued that if a nuclear accident causes dispersion of radioactive materials, Lake Biwa, which is the source of water for 14 million people in the Kinki region, could be contaminated. If similar lawsuits covering wider areas were to increase, efforts to restart other nuclear reactors could be also hampered.

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