Photo/IllutrationLawyer Hiroyuki Kawai speaks in Matsuyama in July after the Matsuyama District Court dismissed a demand for the suspension of the No. 3 reactor of Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata nuclear power plant. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

North Korea’s missile launches have prompted the government to issue alerts on TV and mobile phones, urging people to take cover in case something goes wrong.

But one puzzling question is why the government has not addressed the risks of keeping nuclear power plants in operation even when missiles are flying over Japan.

North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles 15 times last year and 13 so far this year.

In August, Pyongyang announced plans to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles over the prefectures of Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi before they splash down in waters around the U.S. territory of Guam.

Instead, North Korea’s latest missile, fired on Aug. 29, flew over Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, and fell into the western Pacific Ocean.

Speaking about North Korea’s increasing provocations, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Pyongyang that any further threats to the United States “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also condemned North Korea for posing a “threat that has never been this serious and grave.”

The Japanese government has issued orders to intercept North Korea’s missiles, citing the need to safeguard people’s lives and assets against projectiles falling on Japanese territory. The government is on alert around the clock to issue such orders.

Evacuation drills have been staged in many regions.

When the J-Alert warning was issued soon after North Korea’s missile launches to urge people to take precautions, subway and Shinkansen bullet train services were suspended in some regions.

However, despite this state of high alert, nuclear power plants remain online.

While stressing the missile threat from North Korea, the government has made no mention of the danger to nuclear power plants.

An attack against a nuclear power plant could bring catastrophic consequences.

Experts say the operation of a single reactor for one year produces a level of radioactive material equivalent to 1,000 of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The destruction of a nuclear plant in a missile strike could put the nation’s very survival at stake.

That is why nuclear power plants are likened to nuclear warheads for potential adversaries.

The Self-Defense Forces have a two-stage system to intercept North Korea’s missiles when they are projected to fall on Japanese land and waters: the deployment of Aegis destroyers and the PAC-3 interceptor missile system.

But senior officials with the Defense Ministry admit that the SDF will not be able to shoot down all of such missiles.

Pyongyang’s weapons development program has advanced significantly over the years, making it harder for Japan to prepare a response.

A North Korean missile, traveling at about 20 times the speed of sound, can hit Japanese territory within 10 minutes after it is fired.

Even if a nuclear reactor completes an emergency shutdown after a missile launch is confirmed, the nuclear facility’s safety is not guaranteed.

The collapse of other nuclear plant components by a missile would present a formidable challenge for plant operators in dealing with decaying heat from nuclear fuel in the reactor. Averting a meltdown would be almost impossible under these circumstances as was demonstrated by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

If a missile directly hit a nuclear reactor, we would all know what to expect.

The vulnerability of nuclear plants in light of a possible missile attack has been pointed out in a lawsuit demanding the suspension of operations at a nuclear facility.

When the presiding judge asked the utility the reason for not halting the plant, the company could not provide an immediate response.

North Korea is fully aware that Japan’s Achilles heel in national defense is its nuclear power plants.

The Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, stated in April 2013: “(North Korea) possesses the capability to retaliate against Japan with a force to destroy the country. There are many nuclear power-related facilities in Japan. It will be unavoidable for the country to experience a calamity of the scale that will defy comparison with the nuclear catastrophe it suffered in the 1940s.”

Some experts doubt a military clash with North Korea will erupt.

But we cannot rule out the accidental use of force if the situation spirals out of control under heightened tensions.

If there exists even a 1 percent risk of conflict, nuclear power plants should be taken off-line as a safeguard measure. That is about ensuring the nation’s security.

We should not leave our nation’s fate at the whims of a dictator of a neighboring country.

* * *

The author is a lawyer who was involved in lawsuits seeking court injunctions to suspend operations of nuclear power plants.