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Japan nuke agency exec added laxer option to closed-door NRA meet on volcano ash response

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)

TOKYO -- Onetime Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Secretary-General Masaya Yasui ordered the addition of a second option regarding volcano safety measures for three nuclear power plants to materials for a closed and unrecorded "pre-meeting" in December 2018 -- an option that was ultimately the only one presented at a later public NRA meeting where it was adopted.

Yasui's second option regarding safety evaluations of the three Kansai Electric Power Co. plants -- Takahama, Oi, and Mihama -- was added for "comparison purposes," according to emails by an official in charge and obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun through a public records request.

Kansai Electric had previously obtained NRA approval for reactors at the three plants under new NRA safety regulations instituted in response to the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi plant meltdowns. Some researchers, however, pointed out that the amount of volcanic ash that would be generated if Mount Daisen in Tottori Prefecture, western Japan, erupted had been underestimated. The mountain is about 200 kilometers from all three plants. The NRA agreed at a public meeting on Nov. 21, 2018, and was deliberating how to handle the authorization it had already given Kansai Electric.

Materials distributed at the pre-meeting and obtained by the Mainichi presented two proposed solutions: 1. Swiftly prompt a fresh application through written instruction to Kansai Electric; and 2. Order the utility to re-evaluate the estimated volcanic ash volume. The first option would have been equivalent to the NRA stating the reactors had failed to meet safety standards, while the second would put off a final decision until after the ash re-evaluation had been submitted.

According to a source close to the proceedings, the discussion in the pre-meeting hearing was based on this document, and participants chose the second proposal. This was the option inserted by Yasui, and the only one to go before the public hearing six days later, where it was adopted by all five NRA commissioners.

At a Jan. 8, 2020 news conference, current NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa contradicted the Mainichi's source, stating, "We did not discuss the (Kansai Electric plant) issue based on those pre-meeting materials. We did not settle on any particular opinion or make any specific choices."

This map shows Mount Daisen's distance from Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama, Oi, and Mihama nuclear power plants. (Mainichi)

However, the content of the some 40 emails obtained by Mainichi reporters suggest that the pre-meeting documents at the very least strongly influenced the closed-door NRA discussions, and that the failure to record the hearing thus violated the Public Records and Archives Management Act, which requires minutes of any meetings that lead to officials deciding on policy options.

The emails include messages apparently from the head of the NRA's regulatory planning department chief to related parties, and date to shortly before the authority pre-meeting. The closed hearing was attended by 11 people, including Yasui, Fuketa, and Akira Ishiwatari, in charge of volcanic ash issues.

A Nov. 30, 2018 email sent to 10 NRA officials including those in the legal and safety inspection sections revealed that a meeting among the regulatory planning chief, the department's No. 2 plus the chief engineer had allowed "feelings to be heard." It went on, "The current (meeting) materials were drawn up on the assumption that (Kansai Electric) would need to submit a facility approval application change, but it now looks like a second option to order a revised (volcanic ash) report will be added for comparison and debate." A facility approval application change would have entailed a complete re-evaluation of safety standards at the three nuclear plants.

The message continued, "I will revise the (pre-meeting) materials, which will be discussed at the (Dec.) 12 commissioners' meeting."

The pre-meeting materials were apparently distributed at the Dec. 3 meeting with three NRA executives including Yasui, after which the regulatory planning head sent an email stating, "I want to alter the materials based on discussions I've had." A legal affairs section official replied on Dec. 4, "Regarding the re-evaluation of the materials, this is at the behest of the secretary-general (Yasui), so I will comply. I received concrete instructions yesterday."

Then in a message dated Dec. 5 -- a day before the closed pre-meeting -- the regulatory planning head wrote, "Based on a lecture this morning by the chief engineer, I've drawn up meeting materials for the lecture for the three executives." And, "I'm revising the tail end of the document text to reflect information I obtained from the conclusions of a lecture by Commissioner (Akira) Ishiwatari."

In sum, the email exchanges strongly suggest the closed hearing documents were drawn up through the combined efforts of senior officials, all acting at the direction of Yasui. When asked for comment, the NRA public relations office immediately admitted Yasui had directed the creation of the pre-meeting materials, stating, "It's obvious from the content of the emails."

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