The eruption of Japan’s second highest volcano not only highlights the country’s vulnerability to natural catastrophes, but also the risks facing its nuclear industry

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recently approved the restart of the Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai plant nuclear power station in the country’s southwest.

This is seen as the first step to reopening an industry that has been dormant since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

However, Saturday’s eruption of Mount Ontake has raised concerns that such a move could place the country in danger, as the plant is in a region with several active volcanic sites.

The government argues that the plant is in a separate volcanically active area to Mount Ontake, and the NRA states that the chance of ‘major’ volcanic activity during the lifespan of the plant is negligible.

Disproportionate risk

However, while Japan occupies a very small percentage of the earth’s land mass, it suffers from a disproportionate amount of risk from volcanoes, tsunami, earthquake and other natural disasters.

This fact was highlighted by a 5.6 magnitude earthquake that struck 44km north-northeast of Tokyo earlier this moth.

Operators of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant reported no additional damage to the facility, but it serves as a reminder to the country that the catastrophe threat is very real, and that the nuclear power issue should remain front of mind.

Interestingly, although the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami were the obvious causes of the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that the nuclear disaster was in fact “man-made”.

Both the regulators and plant operator were aware of the potential risk of a power outage in the event of a tsunami reaching the plant – and of the need for structural reinforcement of the plant – but they failed to act, the commission concluded.

Poor coordination

As the World Development Report 2014 (WDR2014) points out, lack of flexibility and poor coordination proved especially problematic in managing the response to the disaster.

Local authorities were unprepared for a nuclear disaster alongside a natural hazard, and plant technicians were initially isolated because of transport and communication failures.

“Both situations highlight the need to build capacity to respond flexibly to unexpected events,” it states.

“Responders and decision makers must be in a position to respond rapidly and flexibly – albeit within a well-established institutional framework – to events that may unfold in ways never previously imagined.”

Establishing the chains of authority and means of coordination to be deployed in the event of a crisis and putting in place disaster coordination teams are important, says the WDR2014 team.

For more on natural catastrophe risk in Japan, keep an eye out for the soon-to-be-published StrategicRISK 2014 Japan Risk Report, sponsored by Zurich and supported by the Pan-Asia Risk & Insurance Management Association (PARIMA).

All StrategicRISK’s Asia-Pacific country reports are available here