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Japan Wins Scientists’ Panel Nod to Restart Atomic Reactors

Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Ohi Nuclear Power Station
Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Ohi nuclear power station is seen behind Japan's national flag displayed on a fishing boat in Ohi Town, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A panel of Japanese scientists reported that two nuclear reactors idled for safety checks are safe to operate, giving Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda the approval he needs to re-start the units.

After a meeting late Sunday that was moved to a new venue after anti-nuclear protests, the 12-member panel appointed by the governor of Fukui prefecture, where Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Ohi nuclear plant is located, released a document stating the plant can be operated safely.

“It has been evaluated that safety measures are satisfactory for ensuring reactor security even in the event of an earthquake and tsunami that must be anticipated based on the lessons learned from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear accident,” the panel said.

Noda, backed by businesses including Komatsu Ltd. and NEC Corp., said June 8 the nation needs to resume nuclear power generation to avoid blackouts and preserve quality of life. Polls show 70 percent of Japanese oppose atomic energy.

The science panel was appointed by Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa to provide an extra measure of safety checks after last year’s disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant in the northeast undermined support for atomic power. Radiation leaks prompted the evacuation of as many as 160,000 people.

Public Opposition

Seventy-one percent of respondents to a Mainichi newspaper poll published on June 4 objected to a speedy restart of the reactors in Ohi. In a separate poll released June 5 by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Japanese said the country should reduce its reliance on nuclear energy and 52 percent said they were worried that they or someone in their family may have been exposed to radiation.

Nishikawa is expected to accept the panel’s advice, clearing the way for Noda to allow the reactors to resume operation. The prime minister and three cabinet members with final say on the restart may give the go-ahead as early as June 16, the Kyodo News agency reported, citing unnamed officials.

Japan, once the world’s biggest nuclear power generator after the U.S. and France, shut its last operating reactor on May 5 after last year’s March 11 quake and tsunami caused meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. Supporters of restarting the two Ohi reactors, including Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of Japan’s biggest business lobby Keidanren, say power shortages in the Kansai region could force factory shutdowns and slow the economic recovery.

Local Authorities

While not legally required, central authorities typically seek the consent of local governments to restart reactors.

Local authorities near Fukui prefecture dropped their opposition to the restart on May 30, leaving the decision to the Fukui governor, the Ohi mayor and four key ministers: Noda, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano, Environment Minister Goshi Hosono and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura.

In April the four approved safety measures at the plant and confirmed the necessity of the restart to avert power shortages.

Yukiko Kada, governor of Shiga prefecture, next to Fukui, criticized the government for what she called the “rush to restart the reactors” in an April 11 interview.

Power Cuts

The Japanese government announced power-saving targets on May 18 in areas supplied by seven of 10 regional utilities, including Kansai Electric, which is most dependent on nuclear power. Homes and companies supplied by Kansai Electric should cut consumption by more than 15 percent from 2010 levels on weekdays beginning July 2 through Sept. 7, it said.

Six weeks will be needed for the two 1,180-megawatt reactors to reach full output, Akihiro Aoike, a Kansai Electric spokesman, said. Users in the Kansai region should prepare to conserve power even if the reactors are brought online because full production won’t be reached until after July, Edano told reporters on June 1.

Absent nuclear power, Kansai Electric’s electricity output may fall 14.9 percent short of peak demand this summer should the nation experience a heat wave similar to 2010’s, a government panel said last month.

Western Japan has a 40 percent likelihood of higher-than-average temperatures in the three months to August, the Japan Meteorological Agency said on May 24. The eastern and northern regions have a 30 percent possibility of a warmer-than-usual summer, the state-run agency said.

Even if power shortages during peak summer hours are averted, increased use of thermal power plants will keep draining Japan’s national wealth, the government panel said.

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