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IAEA Gives Japan Passing Grades, But Not an A

Not so very long ago, we mentioned that Japan invited in the International Atomic Energy Agency to review its stress tests at its nuclear energy facilities. Now, there’s news of how that went:

The team began its work on 23 January and delivered a Preliminary Summary Report to Japanese officials today and plans to finish the final report by the end of February.

So what’d it say? Here’s the good news:

  • Based on NISA instructions and commitments of the utilities, emergency safety measures were promptly addressed in Japanese NPPs following the accident on 11 March 2011;
  • NISA's practice of conducting an independent walkdown of emergency measures implemented at nuclear power plants enhances confidence that plants and operators can respond effectively during an emergency; and
  • By observing European stress tests, NISA is demonstrating its commitment to improving Japanese nuclear safety by gaining experience from other countries.

NISA is Japan’s NRC. NISA has been severely criticized for its coziness with the industry and the Japanese have decided they will replace (or supplement) it with a more independent NRC-like organization.

And here are the areas where there could be improvement:

  • Although NISA has demonstrated a notable level of transparency and interested party consultation related to the Comprehensive Safety Assessment and its review process, NISA should conduct additional meetings with interested parties near nuclear facilities that are subject to Comprehensive Safety Assessment;
  • NISA should use the experience it gains from the first few reviews to clarify its guidance for how nuclear power plants should conduct their Comprehensive Safety Assessments and for how NISA should review those assessments;
  • In the Secondary Assessment, there are areas that NISA could address more thoroughly, such as seismic safety margins and severe accident management; and
  • NISA should ensure that the Secondary Assessments are completed, evaluated and confirmed by regulatory review within an appropriate timeframe.

That’s not bad, though it sounds as though it’s the IAEA that really wants a secondary assessment and perhaps Japan’s version of it is not fully implemented. But no: these assessments belong to NISA’s procedures, so IAEA is commenting on the gap between NISA’s definition of a secondary assessment and its implementation.

In its report, the IAEA defines these assessments thusly:

The Primary Assessment will inform the decision whether to restart operations at suspended NPPs [nuclear power plants] and the Secondary Assessment will inform whether to continue or halt operations at operating NPPs. The Secondary Assessment is explained as being based on the stress tests in Europe and the deliberations of the Investigation and Verification Committee on the Accidents at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station (TEPCO).

So they are something the Japanese are adopting from the Europeans.It sounds like NISA did an okay but not great job of it. Hopefully, this means that the secondary assessments will be done again and in much more detail.

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As mentioned in the last post on this subject, the idea behind all this is to reassure the public that the facilities can reopen safely. Let’s leave aside whether or how the public relations goal dovetails into the safety issues. To put it another way, plants not impacted by the earthquake are being shuttered by fear, not safety concerns, so really, public relations is all they need – the specific plant the IAEA visited, Oi, was not affect by the earthquake.

No word on whether the Japanese believe they accomplished this goal to their satisfaction, but Reuters seems to think so:

U.N. nuclear experts on Tuesday gave their backing to stress tests aimed at showing Japan's nuclear plants can withstand the sort of disasters that devastated the Fukushima plant last year, potentially bolstering a government campaign to restart idled reactors and avoid a summer power crunch.

But still, there’s this:

Local governments hosting nuclear plants, however, have said the stress tests were not sufficient to allow them to give their approval, with some requesting that findings from the Fukushima disaster be considered in drafting new safety standards as well.

The story goes on to explain that the government could switch on all the plants without local approval, but that custom dictates it not do so until the local officials sign off.

This story could be going on for awhile, but I notice that talk of Japan exiting the nuclear energy field seem to have tamped down. It really needs the electricity to get through the sweltering summer months.

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