Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

In a break from tradition, the operator of the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture agreed on March 29 to seek approval from surrounding municipalities before restarting its reactor.

Japan Atomic Power Co. (JAPC) reached the safety agreement with Tokai village, which hosts the plant, and the five surrounding municipalities of Hitachi, Hitachinaka, Naka, Hitachiota and Mito.

It was the first time that a nuclear power plant operator has agreed to obtain prior consent on the restart of its reactors from surrounding municipalities, which was clearly stated in writing.

In Japan, municipalities located within a 30-kilometer radius from nuclear plants have to work out evacuation plans to prepare for possible accidents at those facilities. But they do not have the authority to stop the restarts of reactors.

However, the March 29 agreement changed the conditions for a restart.

The agreement was reached in a tripartite meeting of JAPC, the Ibaraki prefectural government and a panel consisting of the six municipalities. The meeting was held in the Tokai village government office.

The agreement, which consists of six articles, is not legally binding. However, the six municipalities can express their opinions and can make on-site inspections in advance concerning a restart of the nuclear reactor or the extension of its operation. They can also demand that JAPC implement additional safety measures.

Because of that, the agreement effectively makes it necessary for JAPC to obtain prior consent from the five surrounding municipalities as well as Tokai village.

JAPC also submitted documents in which it confirmed the contents of the agreement. The documents grant the six municipalities the authority to seek prior negotiations with JAPC at the time of restart of the nuclear reactor, and the JAPC must negotiate with them.

Hitachinaka Mayor Motoki Honma praised the agreement.

“The agreement was a result of acts we conducted based on the idea as our region. We must realize that our responsibilities have become greater,” he said.

Meanwhile, a stern-faced JAPC President Mamoru Muramatsu said, “We will listen to opinions (from the municipalities) in a sincere manner and will hold negotiations (with them) thoroughly until they accept our stance.”

The Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant has only one reactor. The operation of the reactor has been suspended since the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The reactor will reach its basic lifespan of 40 years in November this year. Currently, the Nuclear Regulation Authority is looking into whether the reactor is meeting new safety standards for the extension of its operation.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the municipalities set up the panel under the initiative of former Tokai Mayor Tatsuya Murakami, who advocated for the abolition of nuclear plants.

Saying that an accident at a nuclear power plant will adversely affect surrounding municipalities as well as one that hosts the facility, the panel had demanded that JAPC will also need prior consent from surrounding municipalities within a radius of 30 km.

In the case of Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant, about 960,000 people are living within a 30-km radius from the facility. The number is the largest among areas around nuclear power plants in Japan. In addition, the plant lies close to the Tokyo metropolitan area.

In 2014, JAPC promised to review the safety agreement.

Behind the panel’s strong demand was the fact that the reactor of the Tokai No. 2 plant will reach its lifespan of 40 years in November this year, and JAPC plans to extend its operation.

Before JAPC applied in November 2017 for the extension, the panel strongly demanded that it will also need prior consent from surrounding municipalities, and obtained the words, “effective prior consent.”

As for the latest agreement, Mito Mayor Yasushi Takahashi praised it, saying, “The agreement means that if one of the six municipalities does not give consent, JAPC will not restart the reactor.”

The challenge will be how the six municipalities will unify their opinions. JAPC says that it will not end its negotiations with them even if the six municipalities have differing opinions among themselves.

Tokai Mayor Osamu Yamada said that the six municipalities will examine methods to form a consensus among themselves from now on, saying, “Decision by a majority will not be suitable.”

Regarding the latest agreement, a high-ranking Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official said that it is not legally binding and is just a "gentleman’s agreement."

“We don’t have a concern that similar agreements will spread to other areas.”

By making the remark, the official hinted at a stance that the ministry wants to prevent such agreements from spreading.