Niigata Prefecture’s Verification Supervisory Committee in Limbo

—How Will This Affect Restarts of TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Units 6 and 7?—

By Yamaguchi Yukio (CNIC Co-Director)

Japan has seven nuclear reactors that have yet to be restarted despite qualifying under the new regulatory standards. What will happen with them in the future? They each face their own respective circumstances impeding their restart, but in particular, the future fate of Units 6 and 7 of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO’s) Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant (NPP) is a major issue. Japan’s government will be motivated to go ahead with GX (green transformation) if the full-scale resumption of operations can be achieved, but we don’t see any prospects of that.

The aftermath of the disaster at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi NPP shows no signs of being resolved. TEPCO is having extreme difficulty retrieving the debris. Moreover, TEPCO and Japan’s government have completely lost the trust of their citizens and residents over their part in causing the Fukushima disaster, and that has not been restored.

In 2002, TEPCO concealed problems at its NPPs. That should be considered a crime and must not be forgotten. In that incident, a whistleblower revealed that data on the presence and numbers of cracks in the shrouds, jet pumps and other equipment at 13 of TEPCO’s nuclear reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Fukushima Daiichi and Daini NPPs had been tampered with. Five individuals, including the company’s president, chairman, counselor and director of the nuclear power division apologized and took responsibility for the incident by resigning. Four of these men were major figures in the Japanese business world. The year after that, Niigata Prefecture established the “Technical Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Facilities in Niigata Prefecture” (below, “the Niigata Technical Committee”) with 15 committee members. They were tasked with looking into the incident.


Niigata Technical Committee Disbanded

Niigata Prefecture’s Verification Supervisory Committee for the Fukushima nuclear accident, which has attracted attention from all over for a long time, has not met for the past two years. Its chairman, Ikeuchi Satoru, along with the other committee members, have been dismissed after their terms of service expired. This was the decision of Niigata’s governor, Hanazumi Hideyo.

 The Verification Supervisory Committee was established by former Niigata Governor Yoneyama in September 2017 to oversee the discussions of three verification committees (named below), look into the safety of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP and contribute to discussions for and against restarting the plant. The three verification committees were called the “Committee on the Verification of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident,” “Committee on the Effects of the Nuclear Accident on Health and Livelihoods” and “Committee on the Safe Evacuation Methods in the Event of an Accident.” However, there were overlaps in the content of the discussions between each of these verification committees, and thus it was essential to have a comprehensive exchange of opinions to achieve more substantive discussions.

For example, during any evacuation, radiation exposure is inevitable, but how are we to consider “health and livelihoods” at such a time? Also, the method and route of evacuation will be closely related to how the accident evolves. The nature of information dissemination at the time of an accident has very great impact on the evacuation. Governor Hanazumi, who succeeded Governor Yoneyama, made a public pledge not to start discussing restarting the plant until the general verification work had been completed.

Therefore, under current conditions, discussions on restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP should be able to get underway. It appears, however, that in any case, perhaps it is the governor that decides whether anything by the name of a “formal verification review” is conducted, clearing the path for restarts. It is inferred that this is being linked by the Kishida administration to a movement to railroad through a policy of returning to nuclear power, with GX as an excuse.


Niigata’s Exceptional System

Izumida Hirohiko, who was Niigata’s governor at the time of the 2007 Chuetsu offshore earthquake, which he experienced, expanded a previously existing technical committee and set up two subcommittees with the aim of achieving a more detailed examination. These were the Subcommittee into Earthquake and Ground Condition (with six members) and the Subcommittee into Equipment Integrity, Earthquake Resistance and Safety  (with eight members). The former subcommittee functioned until the summer of 2011 (after the March 11 disaster), and the latter, until just prior to March 11, 2011. After that they both lapsed into oblivion, but their parent committee, the Niigata Technical Committee, lives on. The two subcommittees conducted heated debates, with several scholars critical of nuclear power participating. They held frequent meetings which were open to the public, the room being nearly full to capacity each time with audience members from both inside and outside the prefecture.

At the end of each meeting, the floor was opened up for exchanges of views between the many critical subcommittee members and the audience, providing a route for citizens to have their doubts and views heard by the subcommittees. Prior to that time, and as is the case currently, committees and councils were all composed of experts appointed by the government with an agreed-upon common ground, with members selected to draw conclusions consistent with that common ground. These subcommittees were completely different from that, extremely exceptional entities. For this reason, Niigata Prefecture’s way of organizing this has been called the “Niigata Method.”


Three Verification Committees and a Verification Supervisory Committee

After the tragic nuclear accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi NPP in March 2011, Niigata Prefecture inaugurated the above-mentioned three verification committees, together with the Verification Supervisory Committee embracing those three, to examine the safety of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP. It was Governor Yoneyama, successor to Governor Izumida, who created this mechanism, but the previously existing Niigata Technical Committee took charge of the Accident Verification Committee. To chair the Verification Supervisory Committee, they called on a well-known astrophysicist, Dr. Ikeuchi Satoru, Professor Emeritus of Nagoya University, who had deep knowledge of scientific and technological thought along with the theory of civilization.

The Verification Supervisory Committee, however, met only twice, in February 2018 and January 2021, and in the two years since then, not at all. This is said to be on account of disagreements between Chairman Ikeuchi and the governor, who convened the committee.

When the Health Verification Committee submitted its report to the governor at the end of March 2023, reports had been received from all three verification committees. Much of the contents of the three reports requires further investigation and cannot be easily summarized. So, just as we were wondering how Chairman Ikeuchi and the Verification Supervisory Committee would now evaluate the discussions and formulate comprehensive policies, the governor suddenly decided to dismiss Ikeuchi. This would mean that the evaluation would be written by Niigata Prefecture officials.


Public Opinion among Niigata’s Residents

Although its facilities meet the new regulatory standards, as TEPCO was the entity responsible for the Fukushima tragedy, its constant scandals have deepened the distrust Niigata Prefecture’s residents have for the company. Right after the company announced that it had completed the construction of additional safety measures, a series of things still needing completion came to light. The discovery of a serious violation of rules for protecting nuclear materials resulted in the company being prohibited by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) from transferring nuclear materials, and that prohibition is still in effect.

As of January 2023, TEPCO had invested 1,169 billion yen in safety measures toward restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP. This is far more than the amounts Chugoku Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. have spent in similar efforts (680 and 270 billion yen, respectively). This shows how determined the company is to restart those reactors.

Prior the prefectural assembly election on April 9, Niigata Nippo, a local newspaper, conducted a questionnaire survey of 71 candidates. Fifty-three (75%) indicated that they would not approve of restarting the reactors. Of the 51 winning candidates determined late night on April 9, 74% held this view. This gives assembly members opposing restarts the majority position. Even 17 of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) assembly members, the largest faction in the prefectural assembly, with 28 seats, replied that they would not approve of the restarts, and nearly all of them gave TEPCO’s incompetence at operating NPPs as the reason for their position. Eighteen of 19 unaffiliated assembly members indicated that they were opposed to the restarts.

Though he was dismissed, Ikeuchi says that the prefecture’s residents need to participate in the discussions in some way, that discussing an evaluation of TEPCO’s competence must not be evaded, and that it is necessary not only to verify the details of the Fukushima accident, but also to hold a comprehensive discussion and determine how this knowledge can be utilized in a discussion of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa NPP’s safety. I strongly support all of these recommendations. I think the recognition that all people living in the Japanese archipelago are parties concerned with nuclear power is one of the big lessons from the Fukushima tragedy.

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