The No. 2 reactor at Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Onagawa Nuclear Power Station in northeastern Japan's Miyagi Prefecture has passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA)'s pre-restart safety inspection. This paves the way for the reactor to go back online, which would be a notable development in itself. However, the power plant's history makes the move worthy of special scrutiny.
The Onagawa Nuclear Power Station buildings' walls were riddled with cracks by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. The No. 2 reactor is the second one in Japan that was damaged in the disaster to pass NRA inspections, following Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai No. 2 Power Station in Ibaraki Prefecture north of Tokyo.
The Onagawa inspection took six years, as the operator met NRA demands to build up the plant's anti-tsunami breakwater, install measures to prevent the facility from losing power, and strengthen the structure against seismic shocks, among other requirements.
The geographic features surrounding the power station are similar to those around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which suffered a triple-meltdown in the March 2011 quake and tsunami disaster. The Onagawa No. 2 reactor is also of the same boiling-water type as the ones at the Fukushima plant, and required more time to inspect than those used in western Japan.
The government apparently intends to use the reactor's passing grade as a major breakthrough to pave the way for more restarts of boiling-water reactors in northeastern Japan. However, just because the Onagawa unit passed the NRA inspection test does not mean that all its issues have been resolved.
First of all, Tohoku Electric must now seek approval for the reactor's restart from local governments around the power station, and residents remain deeply worried about the prospect of evacuation in case of a serious accident. The electricity producer has sunk some 340 billion yen (about $3.1 billion) into the plant's safety improvements, but it is possible that yet more will be needed.
The NRA re-evaluated Japan's nuclear safety standards in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Every nuclear power plant in the country was shut down and required to pass the NRA's new inspection regime before going back online. Including the Onagawa No. 2 unit, 16 reactors have now received the NRA's imprimatur, only nine of which have been restarted so far.
The reason behind this relatively low restart rate is the additional safety measures being required for individual reactors, or "backfitting" in the jargon of the nuclear regulator sector. These supplementary requirements are intended to reflect the very latest in know-how and technology, to make sure a plant's safety regime is as up-to-date as it is possible to be.
So, can the Onagawa plant operate safely even in the face of the most conceivable disaster scenarios? Could it deal with a volcanic eruption in the area? What about a terror attack and an airplane crashing directly into the reactor building? Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai Nuclear Power Station in southwestern Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture was restarted without answering these questions, and has in the end been slated to be taken offline again next year.
According to a Mainichi Shimbun study, 11 major Japanese power producers have already spent a total of more than 5 trillion yen (about $45.7 billion) on nuclear safety measures since the outbreak of the Fukushima disaster. In 2013, 10 firms had spent less than 1 trillion. As costs balloon, it is becoming increasingly difficult, even absurd, for the government and power companies to maintain the argument that nuclear power is "cheap."
The more thoroughly safe the plants become, the more time and money is needed. We must ask, then: is it realistic to press on with the safety upgrade and reactor restart policy? We cannot dispel our suspicions that the answer is, in fact, "no."
Japan's energy future is premised to a great extent on the reduction of high-risk nuclear power. To dismiss consequential discussion on leaving atomic energy behind and instead rush on with reactor restarts is facile thinking, and it cannot be countenanced.