Photo/Illutration The Onagawa nuclear power plant in Miyagi Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Tohoku Electric Power Co. announced Nov. 27 that the No.2 reactor at its Onagawa nuclear power plant in Miyagi Prefecture has cleared the regulatory screening for a restart, more than eight years after it was damaged in the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima disaster.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has produced a draft report on its safety inspections of the reactor, saying it has met the new safety standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The NRA’s action means the unit, which is a boiling water reactor like those at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, has passed a key test for its reactivation.

The nuclear safety watchdog has spent six years assessing the safety of the reactor since the utility applied for a license to bring the unit back online.

Tohoku Electric Power has taken safety measures to ensure that the reactor will withstand an earthquake with a shaking intensity twice larger than previously assumed. The company has also promised to build a 29-meter high seawall in line with the lessons learned from the 2011 disaster, when the plant came close to being hit by the tsunami. Special facilities to respond to a severe accident will also be installed.

Despite all these new safety measures, the risk of the unexpected occurring, resulting in damage to the reactor, should not be ruled out.

There are still more things that should be done and considered before debating the appropriateness of allowing the utility to restart the reactor when the promised measures have been taken. The work is expected to be completed in fiscal 2020.

The biggest worry about the plan to bring the reactor back on stream is the lack of a viable plan for emergency evacuations of local residents.

The Oshika Peninsula, where the nuclear plant stands, has a rugged coastline that turns back upon itself repeatedly. This topographic feature limits possible emergency escape routes.

The local populations of both Onagawa and Ishinomaki, which host the plant, are aged, with people 65 years or older accounting for more than 30 percent of all the residents. One in every five local residents lives alone.

An evacuation plan based on the use of private cars and buses will be difficult to carry out. That will be all the more so in cases of complex disasters such as an earthquake and tsunami occurring in succession.

Some 210,000 people live within 30 kilometers from the nuclear plant including residents of five other neighboring municipalities. The local governments within this radius are legally required to develop evacuation plans. It will be a herculean task to secure evacuation centers that can take in all these people.

The governments of many nuclear host communities in rural areas where the local economy is heavily dependent on state subsidies and jobs provided by nuclear plants will agree to reactor restarts.

But many local residents in these communities remain deeply concerned about the safety of the reactors in their towns and cities.

Earlier this month, a group of Ishinomaki citizens filed a request with the Sendai District Court for an injunction to ban the Miyagi governor and the Ishinomaki mayor from approving the utility’s plan to restart the reactor. The legal action clearly reflects local residents’ anxiety.

A proposal to hold a local referendum on the planned reactor restart based on 110,000 signatures was submitted to the prefectural assembly although it was rejected.

The heads of some local governments in the region have expressed their opposition to the utility’s plan to resume operation of the reactor, saying they cannot take the responsibility to protect the lives of local residents during emergencies.

The Asahi Shimbun has argued that a wider scope of communities around nuclear power plants should be involved in the process. As for the Onagawa plant, there is a system to communicate the opinions of the five surrounding municipalities to Tohoku Electric Power through the prefectural government.

The Fukushima disaster has shown in a graphic manner that a wide range of areas are affected by any serious nuclear accident.

Both the Miyagi prefectural administration and Tohoku Electric Power should pay serious attention to the voices of local communities in wide areas surrounding the nuclear plant.

Nuclear power generation has been promoted under a national policy while nuclear plants have been operated by private-sector companies.

Commenting on Tohoku Electric Power’s plan to resume operating the reactor at the Onagawa plant, Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai has said the central government should make the final decision and take responsibility for it.

In addition to the local administrations and utilities involved, the central government needs to address doubts and concerns among local residents related to a plan to restart a nuclear reactor.

Already, nine reactors have been reactivated under the new nuclear safety standards.

But the Onagawa plant is located in an area that has been repeatedly hit by earthquakes and tsunami. Experts say there are risks of the plant being struck by a major disaster. These facts should not be forgotten.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 28