February 26, 2014

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority appears to be intentionally delaying the restarts of the country’s nukes. The sequence of events that cause this conclusion evokes nuclear energy déjà vu, reminiscent of the American regulatory experience following Three Mile Island. Japan’s leading newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, has been following recent NRA actions and doesn’t like what they see. The newspaper’s recent editorial, NRA mustn’t delay reactor restarts by insisting on public hearings, (1) strongly suggests that they are fed up with apparently intentional delays.

It started on February 15th when the Yomiuri correctly announced that there seemed to be no end in sight for the NRA to finish their review of reactor restart applications. (2) It had been more than six months since the first wave of restart applications were submitted to the watchdog agency, which was the amount of time the NRA said the review of the first few applications would take. In order to avoid the continual importing of expensive fossil fuels to replace Japan’s idled nukes and keep many utilities from having large rate increases, the first restarts need to happen this coming summer. One utility official said, “To reactivate nuclear reactors this summer, the safety checks should be finished ideally in March.” But, on Feb. 15th, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said that none of the safety inspections will be finished before April, contradicting his statement last July that screenings would take “around six months”. Six months ended in January. It is now seven months… and counting.

The situation has understandably irked the utilities that have spent trillions of yen to meet the new safety regulations. The companies feel that the NRA is literally making it up as they go along. There have been more than 80 meetings between the NRA and the nuke companies since last summer, each one taking an average of 10 hours. Just when the companies feel they have met the regulatory mandates, the NRA comes up with new concerns that further delay the process. In fact, one corporate source said, “Even when we think the discussion has progressed on an issue, a new problem emerges on the same issue.” The NRA seems distrustful of each utility’s effort, and in return the companies have lost faith in the regulator. Prof. Yoshihiro Nishiwaki of Tokyo Institute of Technology said, “Discussions will not progress if both sides remain distrustful of each other.”

The situation reminds me of meetings between America’s NRC and the utilities who were building nukes at the time of the TMI accident. The NRC invoked a construction moratorium on America’s nuclear industry after TMI to allegedly insure that all “lessons learned” from the accident were included in the new nukes. However, every one of the partially-completed nukes experienced what seemed to be a never-ending process of meetings over the new regulations. Repeatedly, the NRC came up with additional mandates that delayed everything and made the costs of building nukes skyrocket. I was involved in one of the stalled construction projects, and became convinced the NRC merely trying to prolong the process. As a result, many American nukes under construction were cancelled and replaced by new fossil-fueled units, which had unexpectedly become much cheaper to build even after the already-spent monies on nukes were written off as losses. The current situation in Japan is becoming too similar to ignore. After TMI, NRC delays with construction made many partially-built nukes too expensive to complete. Will Japan’s NRA make restarts too expensive to pursue?

This past week the NRA suddenly invoked a new mandate that will surely postpone restarts even more. They have decided that to prioritize safety screenings to allegedly speed up the process, which makes sense because they have a limited qualified staff to do the job. (3) The watchdog says they will first process screenings on nuclear plants found to have taken enough steps to protect against earthquakes and tsunami while having no other safety concerns. However, the NRA also said they have decided to seek public comments and hold hearings in the municipalities hosting nukes, as well as neighboring communities. The public involvement period will begin after the safety screenings are completed and the draft results are posted. As Lawrence (Yogi) Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again”. Post-TMI construction resumptions in America were marked by a continual stream of public hearings, which added further delays and higher costs to finishing America’s under-construction nukes. It seems Japan’s NRA is following the same cost-ineffective path that will do nothing more than continue to damage Japan’s economy and raise consumer electricity prices.

Here’s the bottom line… The Yomiuri smells something fishy with the NRA’s make-it-up-as-you-go behavior. The newspaper urges the NRA to reconsider their public input decision. (1) The Yomiuri says, “Inviting public comments and holding public hearings are not provided for by law. Regulation authorities organized such events in the past, but they were held mainly to consider the construction of new nuclear power stations. The NRA is conducting safety checks on 10 idled power plants.” The newspaper points out that public comments were sought when the new regulations were invoked, and that should have sufficed. However, NRA Chair Tanaka says these new inputs are intended to fulfill the agency’s responsibility for full transparency. The Yomiuri calls his excuse “dogmatic”. Rather, the watchdog should make decisions based on specialized knowledge, and not on ex-post-facto public opinions. Further, the NRA already seems under-staffed to handle the restart requests, but now they will have to devote more people to the public comment process. The Yomiuri concludes, “Coming at this juncture, the NRA’s decision on public comments and hearings can reasonably be criticized as stalling.”

Yes… it seems the NRA is stalling. But, for what purpose? Is the NRA bending over backwards to show that they are truly independent. Are they trying to avoid getting bad Press? No matter what they do, Japan’s voices of nuclear energy disapproval will criticize any restart decision as “too soon”, and argue that the NRA is “too close” to the nuclear utilities and nothing has changed due to the Fukushima accident. Japan’s economy has been damaged by the nuclear moratorium long enough. The utilities have spent huge sums of money to meet the new regulations. It’s time for the NRA to do the right thing and stop wasting time and money.

References –

1 – NRA mustn’t delay reactor restarts by insisting on public hearings; http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001057135

2 – No end in sight for N-reactor checks;http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001033369

3 – NRA to prioritize nuclear plants for safety screening; http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0001047224