TOKYO – Japanese nuclear regulators on Monday approved contentious safety evaluation changes and draft legislation to allow aging reactors to operate longer, in a rare split decision in which one of the five commissioners dissented.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority, responding to a new government policy to scrap the current 60-year operating limit for reactors, adopted a new system in which additional operating extensions can granted every 10 years after 30 years of service. No maximum limit is specified. The authority also adopted a draft revision of the reactor regulation law for approval by parliament.
It’s a major change from the current 40-year operating limit with a possible one-time extension of up to 20 years, a rule that was introduced as part of stricter safety standards adopted after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet adopted a plan last Friday to maximize the use of nuclear energy, including accelerating restarts of halted reactors, prolonging the operational life of aging plants and development of next-generation reactors to replace those designated for decommissioning, as Japan struggles to secure a stable energy supply and meet its pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
One of the authority's five commissioners, Akira Ishiwatari, a Tohoku University geologist, opposed the changes.
“We are open to revisions (to rules) if changes are clearly to contribute to greater safety for scientific or technical reasons. To me, these changes do not serve either purpose,” Ishiwatari said at Monday’s commission meeting.
Another commissioner, Tomoyuki Sugiyama, deputy chief of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear safety research center, said he felt the discussion was “rushed" as a result of government pressure and that the regulatory body should have acted more independently.
Authority Chairman Shinsuke Yamanaka denied that the watchdog yielded to government pressure and said he believes the new safety system is adequate.
The authority's task is “to inspect the safety of (aging) reactors no matter how long their operational lifespan is," he said. “We simply do not issue safety permits for reactors with progressing deterioration."
Anti-nuclear sentiment and safety concerns rose sharply in Japan after the Fukushima disaster, in which a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant's cooling system, resulting in the meltdown of three reactors and the release of large amounts of radiation.
The government has been pushing for a return to nuclear power amid worries of energy shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a global push to reduce greenhouse gases.
While maintaining a 20%-22% target for nuclear energy's share of the energy mix for 2030, the government previously denied it was considering building new nuclear plants or replacing aged reactors in an apparent attempt to avoid triggering criticism from a wary public.