A countdown is starting in Japan for restarting some of the 48 nuclear reactors that were idled after the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns caused the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl.
The nation’s Nuclear Regulation Authority will receive applications for switching on plants starting July 8, and more than five utilities plan to seek permits. Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the wrecked Dai-Ichi plant that spread radiation in the Fukushima area, said yesterday it will seek permission to start its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant as soon as possible. Its shares jumped 19 percent yesterday.
Meeting new safety rules to restart is urgent for utilities bleeding cash from importing extra oil and gas for backup generation. Japan paid 24.7 trillion yen ($241 billion) for fossil fuels in the year ended in March, up 36 percent from the 12 months before the disaster. Imports this year are even more expensive with the yen’s 14 percent drop against the dollar.
“The decision to seek this safety review is an important one,” Tokyo Electric President Naomi Hirose told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo yesterday. “In our existing turnaround plan, restarts were scheduled from this past April. It’s almost impossible to become profitable again when conditions are different from the ones anticipated in the plan.”
Japan’s nine utilities with atomic plants reported combined losses of 1.59 trillion yen ($16 billion) in the year ended March 31. Only Hokuriku Electric Power Co. posted a profit, ending the year 100 million yen ahead, and only two reactors are currently running, both belonging to Kansai Electric Power Co.
Back into Action?
After the Fukushima accident caused the evacuation of 160,000 people and left a cleanup bill of more than $130 billion for Japanese taxpayers, winning approval to resume splitting atoms for power generation isn’t guaranteed.
The operator of the destroyed plant, Tokyo Electric, also known as Tepco, will file with the nuclear regulator to restart the No. 6 and No. 7 reactors as soon as possible at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa station about 220 kilometers (137 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
The utility, Japan’s largest, will explain the application to local governments in a bid to win their backing, according to a statement from the utility. Tepco, majority-owned by the state after the accident, lost 10 percent in Tokyo trading today, giving back much of the previous day’s 19 percent gain.
At the Ikata nuclear station in western Japan, Shikoku Electric Power Co. is installing radiation filters and emergency power units, seeking to be among the first to restart, Takuji Suzaki, a spokesman, said by e-mail.
Kyushu Electric Power Co. is also readying reactors at its Sendai and Genkai plants on the island neighboring Shikoku, spokeswoman Naoko Iguchi said, while Hokkaido Electric Power Co. completes preparations at its Tomari facility at the other end of Japan, according to spokesman Shota Okada.
“Our import costs are surging, which is causing our financial situation to deteriorate rapidly,” Shikoku Electric’s Suzaki said by e-mail. “Our goal is to get the reactors running again quickly.”
Analysts including Reiji Ogino at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co. put the No. 3 reactor unit at Shikoku’s Ikata plant among the first likely to restart. Other candidates for restarts include two reactors at Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant and one at Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari station, according to Ogino, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. analyst Hidetoshi Shioda and Tom O’Sullivan, an independent energy consultant in Tokyo.
Together, these four plants would restore 3.25 gigawatts of installed capacity, about 7 percent of Japan’s operable nuclear fleet. Japan relied on nuclear plants for more than a quarter of its power before the Fukushima accident.
Tepco, the nation’s biggest power producer, said in May 2012 that it would return to profit this fiscal year if it could restart reactors in its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear station. Tepco posted a 685.3 billion yen loss last fiscal year.
Shikoku Electric assumed a July 19 restart at the Ikata plant’s No. 3 reactor when it requested government permission in February to raise rates due to its growing fossil fuel bill, Suzaki said. The utility faces about 6 billion yen in additional costs for every month after that in which the restart is delayed, he said. That’s the equivalent of 72 billion yen a year, or about 13 percent of the utility’s total operating revenue for the year ended March 31.
Kansai Electric, whose Ohi plant’s Nos. 3 and 4 reactors are the only ones currently operating, was able to save 9.5 billion yen per 1 percent increase in nuclear power utilization, Ogino said.
“Once nuclear power is restored, fuel costs drop,” Ogino said. “That has a positive impact.”
The NRA’s new rules require nuclear power plants to build secondary control centers at least 100 meters (328 feet) from reactor buildings to manage emergency cooling systems and demands that tsunami defenses be based on the largest estimated waves from the most recent scientific assessments.
They also stipulate that plants using boiling water reactors, the same type employed at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and that melted down at Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, must install filtration vents before restarting.
Pressurized water reactors, such as the ones used by the Shikoku, Kyushu and Hokkaido power companies, are required to install the vents within five years after resuming operations.
The facilities are also relatively new by atomic plant standards. Shikoku’s Ikata No. 3 unit, for example, started operating about 18 years ago in December 1994. The oldest of the six reactors at the Dai-Ichi plant began operating in 1971.
Those facts do little to soothe nuclear power opponents, such as Kyoko Ono, a member of the Genpatsu Sayonara Shikoku Network. Ono’s group has been holding rallies and distributing fliers aimed at opposing the restart of the Ikata plant.
“Human beings and radioactivity cannot coexist,” Ono said. “If we don’t stop the restarts, I don’t think Japan has a future.”
About 59 percent of the 1,781 respondents to a survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in early June said they’re opposed to restarting reactors. The poll found 28 percent in favor.
Utilities that plan to submit applications on July 8 have been asked to inform the NRA of their intentions by 3 p.m. on July 5, the agency said in a statement today. After the applications are filed, the NRA will begin inspections that are expected to take about three months, according to Ogino.
All applications received on July 8 will be given equal priority, the NRA said in the statement. The agency has three inspection teams, each of which can work at one facility at a time, Kumiko Tsukuda, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an interview. No decision has been made on whether to hire more inspectors, she said.
“The NRA has a very limited number of staff,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s going to be one of the constraining factors.”
Once any restarts are approved by the NRA, local government officials where the plants are located will be asked for their endorsement. While that process is expected to take about a month, delays could form another choke-point for the utilities, Ogino said.
Ono said the restarts are against the region’s interests, since they pose a hazard while making the local economy overly reliant on the plant.
“Most of the money for nuclear goes to big corporations, while local businesses have to be satisfied with small subcontracting jobs,” Ono said. “Then, once an accident occurs, our community members can do nothing but abandon their homes.”
Eiji Mori, a spokesman for Ehime prefecture, where Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant is located, said that the utility’s restart application would be comprehensively evaluated.
“We need a stable, affordable power supply,” he said. “And we need realistic measures that can avoid disruptions in our people’s daily lives and business activities, although we have to strive to reduce our reliance on nuclear power.”