UN nuclear experts have endorsed stress tests designed to show that Japanese nuclear plants could withstand a repeat of last year’s earthquake and tsunami, as the government campaigns to restart idled reactors and avoid a summer power crunch.
The government, though, still faces an uphill battle to restore public trust in the nation’s power utilities after the March 11 disaster wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, triggering the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Agency’s (IAEA) team has been in Japan at the request of the government to review stress tests conducted by its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) on halted nuclear reactors to verify their safety.
“We concluded that NISA’s instructions to power plants and its review process for the comprehensive safety assessments are generally consistent with IAEA safety standards,” James Lyons, the leader of the 10-member IAEA team, said yesterday.
“We were very impressed with the way Japan quickly implemented the emergency safety measures after the accident in March,” Lyons added to reporters.
He also pointed out areas that Japan could improve upon, such as communicating with local communities about stress tests.
“NISA had done a good job in the transparency of information on their Web site, but we feel that it is also important for them to hold meetings in the vicinities of nuclear power plants to discuss their findings with the local population,” Lyons said.
Stress tests are computer simulations that evaluate a nuclear reactor’s resilience to severe shocks.
NISA completed a review of the stress tests earlier last month and said they showed reactors at Fukui Prefecture’s Ohi plant, the first to be assessed, were capable of withstanding an impact similar to the magnitude 9 earthquake and massive tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima plant.
However, some experts have questioned the validity of the stress tests, saying that the IAEA’s visit was just for show.
“It is obvious that a visit by an international organization advocating nuclear power is part of a political agenda that is built into a story already finished in advance,” University of Tokyo professor Hiromitsu Ino and former nuclear plant design engineer Masashi Goto said in a joint statement last week.
Ino and Goto, who serve on a committee that advises on NISA’s review of the stress tests, said the tests were insufficient as they only simulate one natural disaster at a time and do not take into account the possibility of the sort of equipment failure and human error seen at Fukushima.
Others suggested the IAEA’s stamp of approval would not be enough to alleviate public concern.
“The public mistrust toward the government’s handling of information over the nuclear accident is high and I don’t think the review will change that,” said Atsuo Ito, a political analyst.
In another effort to restore public confidence in nuclear power, the Cabinet yesterday approved bills that would set up a new nuclear safety agency, separating regulation of the industry from the trade and industry ministry, which has promoted nuclear power and came under criticism for its cozy ties with utilities.
The Fukushima disaster has also prompted a major shift in Japan’s energy policy.
The resource-poor nation had aimed to increase the share of nuclear power from a third to more than half of the power supply by 2030 before the disaster, but it now looks to reduce its reliance on nuclear power and raise the role of renewable sources such as wind and solar power.