July 19, 2014
The question of “how safe is safe enough” has suddenly emerged in Japan. The reason is the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s approval of Kyushu Electric’s submittal on safety improvements for Sendai units 1&2. The NRA says Sendai meets all of their safety regulations, so there is no technical reason to bar restarts. Even though a month-long process of establishing local public approval remains, the NRA finding has spurred the Japanese Press to ask the rhetorical “safe enough” question; which has not been publically broached in the island nation before.
The typically-objective Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, addresses the question without actually stating it. (1) Its answer seems to be that since the Sendai unit’s meet all regulatory criteria, they should be judged safe enough for full-power operation. The newspaper states, “Passing safety screening under the new safety standards is a precondition for reactivation of reactors.” The Yomiuri stresses that Kyushu Electric’s 400-page submission is detailed, including measures taken to avert “maximum impact of an earthquake on the reactors and tsunami height, as well as its measures against serious accidents including hydrogen explosions.” Owing to NRA pressure, Kyushu Electric substantially raised its assumptions for the maximum impact of an earthquake on the reactors and tsunami height, and upgraded accordingly. The Yomiuri also points out that Kyushu Electric is presently running on a thin margin of electrical reserves, and loss of only one fossil-fueled unit could make their surplus capacity vanish. Operation of the two Sendai units will keep this from happening. The implied conclusion is that by passing the NRA requirements, the Sendai nukes are “safe enough”.
However, the majority of major newspapers in Japan are purporting the opposite opinion. Many begin their commentaries with a recent statement by NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, “We cannot say that a disaster will never happen. The regulations cannot guarantee safety.” This opens the door for reasoning fraught with the promotion of uncertainty and doubt, all of which is designed to reinforce public fears.
Perhaps the most flagrant example is the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, which seems determined to make itself the most antinuclear of the bunch. The Sendai units may meet NRA regulations, but is not “safe enough” for operation according to the Asahi. (2) Their editorial opens with, “It clearly hasn’t dawned on the central government and Japan’s electric power companies that it is impossible to construct a nuclear plant that is 100-percent safe.” It goes on to say that the “stance” of the nuke utilities has been “backward looking” since the Fukushima accident, and wrangled themselves out of “a huge investment of time and money” by “understating” estimates on maximum-possible quakes and tsunamis. In other words, the Asahi believes Japan’s nuclear utilities have ignored the lessons wrought by Fukushima. Thus, they should not be allowed to restart any of the idled nukes.
What the Asahi conveniently ignores is that the utilities have paid out billions of dollars in upgrades to meet or exceed the new standards, all of which have been based on extreme worst-possible scenarios for quakes and tsunamis. It has not mattered if the scenarios are likely to happen in the next millennia-or-so. The NRA said it must be done, thus it will be done or there will be no restart approval. The Sendai units are the first to show that meeting the new worst-case quake and tsunami mandates is entirely possible. This is not in any way an indication of “backward thinking”. Further, the Asahi fails to admit that the Nuclear Regulatory Authority has proved the worst earthquake in Japan’s history produced no safety system compromises at Fukushima Daiichi. The newspaper seems fixated on the vacuaous idea that the quake caused unacceptable damage on 3/11/11, and that there’s no way any nuke could survive a stronger temblor. This is nothing less than irresponsible fantasy.
With respect to the NRA, the newspaper says the new standards are “nothing but the minimum level required for safety.” The Asahi argues that nuclear utilities cannot be trusted to do the right thing during an accident condition, strongly implying that Tokyo should take charge in all cases. Their commentary says, “The electric power companies themselves must bring the [emergency] situation under control. There is no indication of how the central government would take responsibility should another serious situation occur in Japan.” Undoubtedly, the newspaper fails to comprehend that the people most qualified to handle emergencies are the plant staffs, and that virtually no-one in Tokyo has any plant operating experience. In fact, the utterly naïve orders from Japan’s PM, Naoto Kan, unnecessarily delayed the venting of unit#1 and virtually insured the subsequent hydrogen explosion which doomed both unit #2 & #3. The ignorant should never be allowed to lead the knowledgeable. How the Asahi can argue to the contrary with a clear conscience is unfathomable.
The Asahi also believes that no nuclear plant should operate before all public protective plans are completed. This sounds reasonable, but the bottom line is that public safety begins with multi-layered technological safeguards, followed by sound decisions made by the plant staff if and/or when a physical safety compromise is possible. The Asahi fails to acknowledge that the concept of “defense in depth” is the essential public protective factor. Regardless, the newspaper says that Tokyo should take control of such a situation, and not leave the decision-making to the local officials. The utter disaster of the Tokyo-organized nuclear evacuation, based on unrealistic and unscientific radiological assumptions, necessarily proves that a central government should never be given this type of responsibility. The local officials know their people and infrastructure far better than anyone hundreds of kilometers distant, and radiation biologists and Health Physics professionals understand the actual effects of radiation exposure many times better than naïve politicians whose main concern is garnering votes.
The Asahi also fails to consider that the Sendai units are quite different from F. Daiichi. F. Daiichi has Boiling Water Reactor systems, while Sendai has Pressurized Water Reactor plants. (For the distinction see “The Nuclear Cooling Tower” at http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com/the-nuclear-cooling-tower.html which illustrates both types) But, perhaps the most important difference is in the containments that surround the reactor vessels. Fukushima has the relatively small GE Mark I design, which proved to be not forgiving enough with respect to hydrogen generation. The PWRs at Sendai not only have Mark I-similar inner structures for containment (drywells), but the entire nuclear structure is surrounded by a massive domed outer GE Mark III containment, which showed its safety in 1979 at Three Mile Island by withstanding an internal hydrogen explosion.
Finally, it seems the newspaper is overly-charmed with foreign prophets of nuclear energy doom who have long-held that the only safe nuke is one that never operates. The Asahi’s objections are essentially an echoing of long-held antinuclear grandiloquence concerning rhetorical uncertainties and insubstantial doubts. The editorial closes with the following question that shifts responsibility to the most innocent group in Japan, “Now that Japanese society knows what is involved, does it really want to again use nuclear power?” In other words, if the Sendai units restart and a Fukushima-level accident occurs, the people of Japan bear the ultimate responsibility by allowing it to happen in the first place. This level of hubris on the part of Japan’s second-largest newspaper is intolerable, especially since the Asahi makes no effort to balance its opinion with the existent facts.