TOKYO -- Three years after Japan's nuclear plants were subjected to more stringent safety rules in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the public still has little confidence in atomic power -- and all but two of the nation's reactors remain offline.
Power companies have filed safety screening applications for 26 reactors at 16 plants under the new rules. So far, just seven reactors at three plants have passed, because the Nuclear Regulation Authority has been assessing such risks as earthquakes and tsunamis carefully in light of lessons learned from Fukushima. Furthermore, power companies have needed time to meet the stricter requirements. The remaining reactors are still being reviewed.
"The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant created an extremely difficult situation" in restarting plants, said NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka. "We've had a lot of trouble trying to figure out how we should conduct safety screenings in that environment."
Only the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture are running now. This is a far cry from before the 2011 earthquake, when nuclear power accounted for almost 30% of Japan's energy consumption.
Concerns over the Sendai plant grew following the massive quakes that shook the Kyushu region in southern Japan in April. The intensity of the earthquake recorded at the plant was well below the threshold that would trigger an emergency shutdown. The NRA judged that there were no safety issues and the plant continued to operate normally. But the NRA came under fire for not fully disclosing information, leading to a decision to release a status report twice a day even if a municipality that hosts a plant doesn't detect a significant temblor.
The NRA also has a way to go in getting the courts to accept its position and the new safety rules. In March, the Otsu District Court in Shiga Prefecture ordered Kansai Electric Power to halt the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at its Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, after taking issue with the power company's safety protocols regarding earthquakes and tsunamis. The presiding judge questioned whether the new standards can be considered the foundation for securing the public's safety.
"The various lawsuits have resulted in misunderstandings," said the NRA's Tanaka.
To address this problem, the NRA in late June created documents that explain the thinking behind the rules in an easy-to-understand format. It hopes that judges will use the documents to gain a basic grasp of the regulations when they hand down decisions. This is part of an effort by the authority to gain widespread acceptence of the new rules.