New Inspection System for NPPs Launched
The nuclear power plant (NPP) inspection system that has been managed by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and its secretariat was changed dramatically on April 1 to emphasize independent safety improvement efforts by electricity companies. The official inspections before commercial operation (pre-service inspections) and regular inspections of facilities the regulatory authorities had been conducting prior to that have been abolished, and now the electricity companies themselves will determine whether or not they pass their company-run pre-service and regular inspections. Company-run regular inspections are not a new feature: For regular inspections of facilities, NPP facility inspection officers from the NRA have been present at company-run regular inspections of facilities of high importance, or have confirmed the recorded data. Under the new system, the regulatory authorities will receive reports on these company-run regular inspections and check the information as necessary.
For pre-service inspections, the nuclear regulatory agency’s NPP facility inspectors and electric facility inspection officers have been attending the functional and performance checks, visual inspections, and materials, dimensions and other checks at each stage of the construction process and confirming the recorded data. Thus company-run pre-service inspections are something completely new. The regulatory authorities will be receiving and checking reports and maintaining the force of regulations by issuing “certificates of confirmation” from the NRA.
The regulatory authorities will have NPP inspectors from the NRA conduct safety inspections as they have before, in the form of nuclear regulatory inspections for the purpose of regulating electricity companies in general, but the title of “safety inspection” has been abolished and quarterly safety inspections have been discontinued. Instead, the inspectors will confirm the electricity company’s security activities and state of observance of safety regulations on a day-by-day basis.
For that, the nuclear inspection officers have been provided free access authority, enabling them to enter facilities freely without prior notice to confirm documented information and other matters. It is said that on April 1, inspections at a number of NPPs were performed straight off without prior notice.
There is not a little uncertainty, however, whether improved safety will be realized through the independent efforts of the electricity companies under this new system.
One Reactor after Another Halted as Deadlines for Installing Anti-terrorism Facilities are Exceeded
Due to its failure to meet the deadline for installing facilities for responding to specific severe accidents, Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai Unit 1 (PWR, 890 MW) was shut down on March 16. “Facilities for responding to specific severe accidents” consist of back-up facilities in the case of terrorist activities, such as deliberately flying large aircraft into a collision with the plant, or if a reactor building is destroyed in an accident and rendered inoperable. The deadlines for completing these facilities at Sendai Unit 2 (PWR, 890 MW), Takahama Unit 3 (PWR, 870 MW) and Unit 4 (PWR, 870 MW) are coming up on May 21, August 3 and October 8, respectively. Meanwhile, Takahama Unit 3, which was shut down for a regular inspection, was expected to resume operation once the inspection was completed on April 10 for the remaining four months before the deadline for its anti-terrorism facilities to be completed arrived, but the investigation into the cause of damage to steam generator tubes has been extended and it has been left halted.
COVID-19-Infected Workers at NPPs
Workers infected with COVID-19 are turning up even at NPPs. As of May 12, two employees of the general contractor Obayashi Corporation engaging in constructing facilities for responding to specific severe accidents at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Genkai NPP and two employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) working in the main office building at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP had tested positive for the virus.
In the midst of that, Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kanden) announced on May 1 that it would postpone its regular inspection of the Oi Unit 3 reactor (PWR, 1180MW), which was scheduled to begin on May 8, for two or three months. They say they are doing this out of consideration of concerns rising locally due to the predicted influx of about 900 workers from outside the prefecture, who would be needed to double the current number of about 1,800 construction workers. The legal deadline for the regular inspection this term was originally August 22, but since demand for electricity increases in summer, it seems they have planned to meet the legal deadline by starting the inspection on May 8, prior to the deadline, so that they could operate the reactor during summer.
If they postpone the inspection by two to three months, it would mean restarting the reactor in October or later. As noted above, Takahama Unit 3 (PWR, 870 MW) has been shut down, and the Unit 4 reactor there (also PWR, 870 MW) is likely to be shut down when it cannot meet the deadline for completing anti-terrorism facilities. Since Oi Unit 4 (PWR, 1180 MW) is scheduled to undergo a regular inspection, it looks like all four of the nuclear reactors Kanden has restarted will be halted.
Moving Towards Tax on Spent Fuel
Starting from 2003, Kashiwazaki City, Niigata Prefecture began levying a tax on storage of spent nuclear fuel from Unit 4 of TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP (the other three units are located in Kariwa Village) at an annual rate of 480 yen per kilogram of uranium. As the storage has become long-term, the mayor proposed a bill on March 23 to the city assembly for progressive taxation over time. The bill was adopted on April 21.
“Progressive taxation” means that the tax will increase as storage continues, so if the storage continues for 15 years or more, the tax rate will grow by 50 yen each subsequent year to a uniform upper limit of 250 yen increased taxation from the fifth year onward. In addition, they decided to raise the basic tax rate to 620 yen per kilogram. The mayor explains this as “an expression of our will not to allow long-term storage.” This progressive taxation is being instituted a year after the mayor and TEPCO came to a mutual agreement to allow the spent fuel to be transported from the NPP grounds. As long as there is no target for its shipment, TEPCO cannot be prompted to ship it out soon.
Storage facilities for fuel to be recycled, among the potential destinations for the spent fuel, are currently undergoing inspection by the NRA for compliance with the new regulatory standards. They are expected to begin operating in 2021. A bill was submitted on March 2 to the city assembly in Mutsu City, where these facilities are located in Aomori Prefecture, to create a regulation charging 19,400 yen per kilogram of uranium for accepting spent fuel and an additional tax of 1,300 yen per kilogram for its storage. That bill was passed on March 27.
Separation of Electricity Production from Distribution and Transmission Begins
From April 1, the distribution and transmission divisions of the major electric power companies have become separate under law from their power generation and retail divisions. The term “hassoden bunri” is the Japanese shorthand for this separation. TEPCO already accomplished this separation in April 2016, but the separation went into effect for the Hokkaido, Tohoku, Chubu, Hokuriku, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu electric power companies and Electric Power Development Co. on April 1 this year. Okinawa Electric Power Co. alone will continue to retain all of its divisions under one company as before, as it does not share its transmission and distribution grid with any other companies.
TEPCO and Chubu Electric Power Co. have established new holding companies, under which they own separate subsidiaries for generation, transmission/distribution and retail of electric power; while the other nine companies are separating off their transmission and distribution divisions and turning them into subsidiaries. The latter form of separation has a clearly low degree of independence. Some think that power generation and retail should be separated as well.
The electric power industry claims that separation of electric production from distribution and transmission will complete the reformation of Japan’s electric power system, but it would be wrong to leave it at that. We would like to call for a better form of electric power network.