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Editorial: Questions remain over high court decision on Sendai nuke plant

The Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court has dismissed an appeal by residents near the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture against a lower court decision that rejected their demand that operations at the power station be provisionally suspended.

The appeal court upheld a decision handed down by the Kagoshima District Court decision in April 2015 on the grounds that there is no irrationality in the new regulatory standards that the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) set following the March 2011 outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, endorsing the restart of the power plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co.

However, questions remain over the appeal court's evaluation of evacuation plans for local residents in case of a serious nuclear accident at the plant as well as countermeasures against volcanic eruptions.

In the latest decision, the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court stated that the safety that must be ensured at nuclear plants should be judged based on social norms, noting that it is impossible to completely eliminate risks of accidents at such power stations. The court then evaluated the quake-resistance of the plant, measures to protect the power station from possible volcanic eruptions and local governments' evacuation plans for residents -- which were key points of contention -- and concluded that the plant poses no specific risks of causing serious damage to nearby residents.

However, the myth of the infallible safety of atomic power stations has collapsed with the crisis at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Needless to say, the operators of nuclear plants must draw up and implement countermeasures on the assumption that serious accidents could occur.

Therefore, evacuation plans for local residents in case of an accident are crucial. It is the responsibility of local governments that host or are situated near atomic power plants to work out evacuation plans for local residents. However, such plans are not subject to safety evaluations by the NRA under its new regulatory standards. Evacuation plans should be covered by NRA screening in order to ensure their efficacy.

However, the appeal court ruled that even if evacuation plans are to lack efficacy, it would not mean that operations at nuclear plants pose an immediate threat to the lives and health of local residents. The court stated that it is a matter of legislative policy, and therefore not irrational, that evacuation plans are not subject to the new regulatory standards.

However, serious questions should be raised over whether it is appropriate under social norms to give the green light for reactivation of nuclear plants even though evacuation plans are inadequate.

Last month, the Otsu District Court issued a provisional injunction ordering Kansai Electric Power Co. to suspend operations at the No. 3 and 4 reactors at its Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture. In its decision, the court said, "It is the national government's duty in the principle of faith and trust to work out regulatory standards that take into consideration evacuation plans." This is a more sensible idea.

The high court criticized the NRA for evaluating the impact of volcanoes on nearby nuclear plants on the premise that the timing and scale of volcanic eruptions is predictable.

At the same time, however, the court concluded that it is common sense that risks of massive volcanic eruptions that local residents point out can be ignored, noting that the possibility of such disasters is not taken into account in construction and other regulations.

However, many members of the public are apparently doubtful of treating nuclear plants, which could seriously affect wide areas if an accident were to occur, in the same way as ordinary structures.

Social consensus has not been formed on risks of accidents at nuclear power stations as even courts are divided over evaluations of such dangers.

The government and electric power companies that operate atomic power plants should take public concerns about nuclear accidents seriously and hold in-depth discussions on the issue.

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