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HOME  > Past issues  > 2020 February 26 - March 3  > Nuclear regulator okays restart of Onagawa NPP, ignoring residents’ concerns over safety
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2020 February 26 - March 3 [SOCIAL ISSUES]

Nuclear regulator okays restart of Onagawa NPP, ignoring residents’ concerns over safety

February 28, 2020
Akahata editorial

The Nuclear Regulation Authority has given a green light to the restart of a reactor that was severely affected by the powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. The nuclear watchdog on February 26 finalized a report acknowledging that the No.2 reactor at the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant in Miyagi Prefecture meets the government’s present nuclear safety standards. With its operator, Tohoku Electric Power Company, preparing for the reactivation of the reactor, local residents and municipalities have continuously voiced concern and anxiety over a possible accident at the plant as well as the inadequacy of evacuation plans in the case of a nuclear emergency. Despite these concerns, the NRA released an “OK to reactivate” report. It is unacceptable to push forward with the restart of the reactor in disregard of safety concerns.

Nuclear reactor damaged by 2011 massive quake and tsunami

The No.2 reactor at the Onagawa NPP is the second reactor to receive the NRA’s “OK” report among reactors damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami following the first one at the Japan Atomic Power Company’s Tokai Daini NPP in Ibaraki Prefecture. In addition, Onagawa No.2 is a boiling water reactor, the same type as the ones at Fukushima Daiichi NPP which had meltdowns in 2011. Under the current nuclear safety standards, the NRA has so far issued “OK” reports to four BWRs at three NPPs: No.2 at Onagawa, Nos. 6 and 7 at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP in Niigata Prefecture, and Tokai Daini NPP.

The Onagawa NPP is the nearest NPP to the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake. At that time, the plant experienced much more severe tremors than what its operator had expected and all the three reactors at the plant automatically shut down their operations. A short time later, the plant was hit by a 13-meter-high tsunami and the underground floor of the No.2 reactor building was flooded. Four of the five external power supply lines went dead and the emergency power system was damaged. The NPP was just one step short of causing a severe nuclear accident.

In the first place, the Onagawa NPP is in an area with a high risk of earthquakes and tsunamis. According to an estimate by the government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion, there is a 90 % chance that a magnitude 7 earthquake will occur within the next 30 years in the sea off the coast of Miyagi where the Onagawa NPP is located. In order to respond to major earthquakes and resultant tsunamis, the plant operator has installed higher seawalls as a countermeasure against possible tsunami by raising the potential tsunami height, and the NRA has endorsed this measure.

However, this will not automatically lead to an assurance of safety. The 2011 earthquake caused tremendous damage to the turbines and left many cracks in the reactor buildings. Concerns over the possibility of a recurrence of these events need to be taken into consideration. Whether or not the safety precautions will actually be sufficient in the event of a major earthquake is still under question.

Before approving the screening report, the NRA received about 1,000 comments from the public, many of which pointed to insufficient countermeasures against earthquakes and tsunamis. The NRA should take this criticism seriously.

The Onagawa NPP is located at the base of Oshika Peninsula, so it will be very difficult for residents to safely evacuate the peninsula if a nuclear accident occurs. Anxieties over evacuation plans abound. In November 2019, several citizens of Ishinomaki City which is located within a 30-kilometer radius of the NPP filed a complaint with the Sendai District Court to seek a provisional injunction to suspend the local "agreement", claiming that the evacuation plans the prefectural government and municipal governments concerned drew up are not feasible. In December 2019, the assembly of Misato Town which is also located within a 30km-zone from the plant adopted a statement calling for the cancellation of the reactivation of the reactor. The assembly says that just a single accident will "emit a large amount of radioactive substances", and that "extensive and grave consequences could continue into the future". To rush headlong toward the restart of the reactor is irrational.

Listen to public opinion

According to the results of an Asahi Shimbun opinion poll released on February 18, 56% of respondents are "opposed" to the resumption of reactors while 29% are in "support". The Abe government policy of putting offline reactors back online as quickly as possible is obviously going against public opinion. In January, the Hiroshima High Court issued a provisional order to suspend operations at the No.3 reactor at the Shikoku Electric Power's Ikata NPP in Ehime Prefecture. The policy faces criticism also from the judicial branch of the government. There is a pressing need to replace the policy that supports the continuation of Japan's reliance on nuclear power generation.
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