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Editorial: Consent to restart Japan nuclear plant won't sweep away concerns

The Miyagi Prefectural Assembly has approved reactivation of the No. 2 unit of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant in the northeastern Japan Prefecture of Miyagi, and Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai is set to make a final decision on the restart as early as next month after hearing the opinions of the heads of local bodies involved.

    With the governor's decision approaching, the plant's operator, Tohoku Electric Power Co., will accelerate moves to restart the reactor two years down the track. If it is reactivated, the Onagawa plant will be the first nuclear plant in a prefecture heavily damaged by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami to reboot one of its reactors.

    A safety inspection of the reactor was completed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in February this year. The municipal assemblies in Ishinomaki and Onagawa, which the plant straddles, have already indicated that they will approve the restart.

    But many issues remain unsolved. First is the question of other surrounding local bodies.

    If a major nuclear accident occurs, then the damage could spread over a wide area. The government has asked local bodies within a 30-kilometer radius of nuclear power plants to formulate wide-area evacuation plans. In the case of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, seven municipalities have mapped out such plans, but there are misgivings about their viability.

    For one thing, the Oshika Peninsula where the plant is located does not have a comprehensive network of roads, so there are fears that evacuation vehicles could get stuck in traffic jams, thereby delaying people's escape. And the local bodies to which these people would evacuate are not yet prepared to accept them.

    Furthermore, among the five local municipalities excluding those which house the nuclear power plant, some are opposed to reactivation of the reactor. In spite of this, consent of such local bodies has not been made a prerequisite in procedures to resume operations.

    In addition, lingering safety concerns cannot be swept away. Tohoku Electric has invested 340 billion yen into safety measures that include bolstering the quake resistance of the reactor building and building a coastal levee that rises to a height of 29 meters above sea level. Gov. Murai says that the plant adopted "the toughest regulations and standards in the world, and safety has increased." But Japan earlier learned from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that such disasters can exceed people's expectations.

    Another point is that the Onagawa plant is near the focus of large quakes that have occurred repeatedly in the past, and the reactors are boiling water reactors, the same type as those hit by the devastating disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

    During the 2011 disaster, waves from the tsunami reached just below the Onagawa plant grounds, and many cracks appeared in the reactor buildings. The Diet's accident investigation committee concluded that it was "plain luck" that the Onagawa plant evaded serious damage like that which occurred at the Fukushima plant.

    The position faced by local bodies seeking reactivation of the reactor is complicated. Their local economies have still not recovered, and they have faced both depopulation and aging of those remaining. Amid such difficult circumstances, they have had no option but to choose to coexist with the plant.

    Nuclear power plants are not 100% safe. Tohoku Electric and the Miyagi Prefectural Government have a responsibility to lend an ear to the concerns of residents and search for common ground. Rushing ahead to restart the reactor with consent as a mere formality while ignoring this responsibility is impermissible.

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