Tepco’s Woman on the Inside Leading Push to Restart Reactors

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has pledged to establish nuclear safety rules that “meet or exceed” national guidelines, as the operator of the wrecked Fukushima atomic station seeks restarts at one of its idled plants.

The standards are part of an effort to change the culture of the utility known as Tepco and convince a skeptical public that its nuclear plants can be operated safely, said Barbara Judge, the deputy chairman of the company’s Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, an internal watchdog.

“Tepco wants to turn over a new leaf, they want to be reborn,” Judge, a former chairman of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, said in an interview in Tokyo on July 4. “I don’t think there was a strong safety culture before. I think it was an efficiency culture. I think they worried about pumping out electricity and being profitable but not particularly about being safe.”

The reform committee established a 20-person nuclear safety assurance office to devise the rules in May. Committee Chairman Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in March that Tepco should have examined the possibility of tsunamis and other natural events in greater detail.

The nuclear safety office, which is led by former U.K. Atomic Energy Authority safety director John Crofts, began working on the guidelines this month and aims to begin implementing them in about six months, Judge said. The standards would apply to Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata prefecture, 220 kilometers (137 miles) northwest of Tokyo, which it is seeking to restart, she said.

Safety Practices

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was set up after the disaster to independently review the country’s nuclear power, finalized its own safety guidelines in June. They require that tsunami defenses be based on the largest estimated waves from the most recent scientific assessments and oblige nuclear power plant operators to build secondary control centers at least 100 meters (328 feet) from reactor buildings to manage emergency cooling systems.

They also stipulate that plants using boiling water reactors, the same type employed at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and which suffered a meltdown at Tepco’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, must install filtration vents before restarting.

“Tepco will meet or exceed the standards of the new regulatory commission,” Judge said. “Tepco itself will have the highest and best safety practices not just in Japan, but in the world.”

Restart Application

All but two of Japan’s 50 functioning reactors are idled for checks after the Fukushima disaster, which caused the evacuation of 160,000 people. The utility is among at least five power companies that have said they’ll apply to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority to restart units at their plants. The NRA began accepting applications today.

Tepco has said it would apply as soon as possible to restart two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. The utility, which had an 685.3 billion yen ($6.8 billion) loss last fiscal year, said in May 2012 that it would return to profit this year if it’s allowed to restart the reactors at the plant.

Tepco President Naomi Hirose visited Niigata on July 5 to try to gain support for a restart application from its governor, Hirohiko Izumida, who has opposed the plant’s resumption.

Gender Gap

“What’s the rush?” Izumida said in remarks published July 6 by the Yomiuri newspaper. “Why was it just decided to go ahead with the application without doing anything to alleviate anxieties?”

Hirose said he would continue to seek meetings with Izumida to secure his understanding for the restart, the Nikkei newspaper also reported July 6.

About 59 percent of the respondents to a survey conducted June 8 and 9 by the Asahi newspaper said they’re opposed to restarting reactors. Women may be especially fearful of nuclear power, with a poll published in June 2012 by the Pew Research Center in Washington finding that 61 percent of Japanese women worried about radiation exposure, as opposed to 42 percent of men.

Judge, who also previously served as a director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said she suspects that, as its sole woman, she was invited to join Tepco’s five-member reform committee in part to help address this gender gap.

The public must be convinced that nuclear power enhances Japan’s energy independence, while offering the country a cheaper and less polluting supply of energy than the fossil fuels used in its stead since the Fukushima accident, she said.

Judge had been making these points in speeches to women’s groups, including one last week at the University of Tokyo, she said.

“I think women have to talk to other women,” Judge said. “It must be about mothers and worrying about your children. We need teachers, we need doctors, we need nurses, we need mothers. We need people who are respected in the community but who you can relate to.”

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