Photo/IllutrationPower generation continues at the No. 4 reactor at the Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Recent announcements by three electric utilities that they will miss the deadline for taking legally required anti-terrorism measures for their nuclear power plants raises serious questions about their commitment to nuclear safety.

Kansai Electric Power Co., Kyushu Electric Power Co. and Shikoku Electric Power Co. said on April 17 that they will miss the deadline for completing the facilities to respond to emergencies triggered by terrorist attacks against their reactors. The reactors include ones that have been restarted after being shut down following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The companies have asked the Nuclear Regulation Authority to extend the deadline.

The facilities in question are supposed to be at the forefront of efforts to prevent severe nuclear accidents in the event their reactors come under terrorist attacks using aircraft.

The utilities should not be permitted to continue their operations until this crucial safety aspect is fixed.

We call on the nuclear safety watchdog to take a firm stand toward their request.

Nuclear plant operators are required to erect anti-terrorism facilities under new nuclear safety standards that took effect in 2013. The regulations are modeled on measures to deal with the risk of terror attacks against nuclear plants worked out by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission following the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States in 2001.

The principal objective of the measures is to prevent the kind of nuclear meltdowns that occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011 even if the control room is destroyed by an aerial terror attack.

The new regulations require the operator of a nuclear plant to build anti-terror response facilities, including an emergency control room and a power generator located 100 meters or more from the control room. The emergency response facilities should be capable of cooling the reactors even if the control room becomes disabled.

The three companies told the NRA that completing the facilities for 12 reactors at their six nuclear plants will not be completed until one to two and a half years after the respective deadlines. They cited the scale of the project and difficulty of the construction work for the delays.

But the deadline has already been extended once. The initial deadline for the construction of the required facilities was 2018, five years after the new safety standards took effect.

But the NRA changed it to “within five years after the completion of the inspection of the construction plan (for official approval) for the facilities for each reactor.”

The NRA’s decision was a response to the situation where the screening process for the reactors themselves was taking longer than expected, causing delays in the construction of the emergency measures.

It is hardly surprising that the three utilities’ request for a further extension of the deadline met with a bitterly critical response from the commissioners of the NRA.

The companies were criticized for their “hope-for-the-best approach” to the issue and “unreasonable” request.

If the construction of the required facilities for a reactor is not completed by the deadline, the reactor must be deemed to fail to fulfill the safety standards.

For the nine reactors that have already been restarted, the NRA has the power to order a suspension of operation if the operators infringe the regulations.

NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa has said the watchdog’s response to the request will be determined through public discussions among the five commissioners.

Given that reactor restarts are conditioned on compliance with the new safety standards, online reactors that do not fulfill the regulations should be shut down for the time being.

Otherwise, the operators’ commitment to compliance will decline, possibly making them vulnerable to the temptation to cut corners in safety efforts.

There is no reason for the NRA to hesitate to order the suspension of reactor operation in such cases.

It is hard not to suspect that the electric utilities have been influenced by the perception that terror attacks against nuclear plants involving aircraft will never happen in Japan.

They should remind themselves of the fact that the Fukushima disaster was caused by a total power loss at the plant, which was deemed “impossible.”

The principal lesson from the catastrophic accident is the need to prepare for all kinds of situations. This lesson should never be forgotten.

The electric utilities operating nuclear power plants need to remember afresh the grim fact that they are dealing with facilities that cannot be stopped once they start running wild.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 20