Japan’s chief nuke watchdog says 2015 will be a crucial year for nuke safety. Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka made his first Press statement of the year on January 6th. He said restarting nukes face particularly dangerous risks of accidents. Tanaka gave two reasons for his statement. First, the units have been idled for a long time. Second, they have a lot of new safety equipment never used before. (1)
Both of his reasons make little or no sense.
Yes, the 48 mandated-idled units have not run in a long time, the most recent shutdowns being the two Oi units in September of 2013. Many others have been off for two years or more. Tanaka makes it seem that all idled units have been left alone and the crews have taken a “Well, we’re shut down. Who’s got a deck of cards” attitude. As a veteran of 15 years in construction and commercial operation of an American nuke, I know that Tanaka’s implied concept is simply not the case.
All of the currently-idled nukes were either already in a refueling outage or subsequently went into one when shut down by Naoto Kan’s moratorium. With any refueling outage, considerable activity occurs to insure that a subsequent start-up will occur safety and expeditiously: e.g. systems are tested, planned maintenance is performed as scheduled, and operation’s systems are kept in peak condition. Since this is actually an extended refueling outage with respect to the systems needed for restarts, the passage of time should not make future nuke restarts any different than the routine startups experienced after every refueling period.
With respect to Tanaka’s second reason, the new safety equipment for each Japanese nuke has essentially nothing to do with the operating systems on any of the 48 units. They are not involved with actually restarting the units. The new safety equipment is specific to making sure another prolonged full-station-blackout, a-la Fukushima Daiichi, does not happen again. The emergency systems are there to keep emergency electricity flowing into a plant in the event that another beyond-worst-case natural disaster happens. The equipment has nothing to do with routine startup and operation of the power plant.
Thus, we need to ask; what would possess Tanaka to believe these two things? I can only think of two possibilities. One is that he isn’t knowledgeable in power plant operations. Although he has nuclear engineering credentials and a long history in nuclear academia, his resume’ does not include any power plant operating experience. It seems he has university and research-level reactor experience, but that is a far cry for a large power plant reactor’s operations. I like to say it’s as different as operating a compact car versus a top-fuel dragster. It would be nice to think Tanaka understands operations at nuclear power plants, but his statements indicate otherwise.
The second possibility is that he thinks he’s demonstrating informational transparency. But, does this include making inexperienced suppositions that can only increase fear in a largely naïve public? I think not. In the words of a famous (now deceased) American sportscaster, “Tell it like it is!” That’s transparency in a nutshell. Don’t tell it like it isn’t! Tanaka’s notion of “particularly dangerous risks of accidents” due to nuke startups is anything but a demonstration of transparency.
To the contrary, it’s a demonstration of naivety.