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High court upholds new regulatory standards for nuclear plants

In scrapping a lower court provisional injunction to halt two reactors at Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture, the Osaka High Court fully upheld the new safety standards for atomic power stations as well as evacuation plans for local residents.

Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO), which is desperate to improve its financial condition, welcomes the appeal court's decision with one official saying, "The nightmare is over."

Still, lawsuits seeking a ban on operations at nuclear power stations have been filed against their operators across the country. As such, it remains to be seen if the latest court decision will give momentum to the government's move to restart idled nuclear reactors across the country.

The high court's decision on March 28 completely dismissed the Otsu District Court's provisional injunction, and fully upheld the new regulatory standards that the government's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) set after the March 2011 outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The high court ruling, which consists of 415 pages, is about seven times the volume of the 59-page decision by the district court. The appeal court devoted many of the pages to affirming the safety of the nuclear plant.

The district and high court rulings differ markedly over risks involving nuclear stations and the new regulatory standards.

With the Fukushima nuclear crisis in mind, the Otsu District Court said government regulators and nuclear plant operators "should take the position that they could overlook risks at all times," and demanded that utilities strictly ensure the safety of their atomic power stations.

The lower court also pointed out that efforts to clarify the cause of the Fukushima disaster are "still only half way through."

Moreover, the district court displayed a sense of distrust in the new regulatory standards saying, "We have no choice but to hesitate in regards to the standards as the basis for a sense of security for the public."

In other words, the ruling empathized with the public's deep anxiety about a recurrence of the nuclear accident.

KEPCO criticized the ruling, which the utility said "effectively demands that risks involving nuclear plants be completely eliminated."

The Osaka High Court took the position that is the polar opposite to the lower court's view on the safety of nuclear plants. Noting that "relative safety" is permitted in the use of science and technology, Presiding Judge Ikuo Yamashita said, "It's inappropriate to demand the absolute safety of atomic power stations."

The judge then concluded that nuclear plants should be deemed safe and their operations should be permitted if risks of radioactive substances causing damage are controlled to a level that can be ignored in light of social norms.

In response to arguments that the cause of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has not yet been clarified, the presiding judge pointed out that basic factors of the occurrence and the development of the crisis have been clarified. He then emphasized that the NRA's new regulatory standards, which were drawn up based on the latest scientific and technological knowledge, are rational.

The court upheld KEPCO's arguments on its nuclear stations, ranging from the plants' quake-resistance to the efficacy of evacuation plans for residents around its atomic power stations, while completely dismissing the plaintiffs' arguments.

The high court ruling even demanded that the plaintiffs prove flaws in the safety of nuclear plants.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are furious about the high court's ruling. "The court handed down a ruling as if to say, 'If you want to file a lawsuit, you should submit perfect evidence.' It's intolerable," one of them told a news conference following the decision.

On the other hand, the decision is favorable for power companies. In April 2016, the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court similarly gave the green light to the resumption of operations at the No. 1 and 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The latest decision represents the second victory for the power industry at the high court level. Juridical authorities are leaning toward permitting certain levels of risks involving atomic power stations.

KEPCO President Shigeki Iwane appreciated the two high court decisions. "It's significant that judgments affirming the safety of nuclear plants continued at the high court level," he said.

"Using the latest court judgment as a leading case, we would like to be armed with theoretical backing so that we can win similar lawsuits in the future," Iwane commented.

KEPCO is poised to examine the safety of the Takahama plant because a large crane fell down on its premises this past January. It will also spend about four days inserting fuel rods into the reactors after gaining consent from local residents.

KEPCO is expected to restart Takahama's No. 3 and 4 reactors in May or later, and begin generating electricity for commercial purposes in June or later.

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