Regulator Vouches for Safety of Third Nuclear Plant in Japan

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Japan’s nuclear regulator vouched in a draft report for the safety of a reactor on the southern island of Shikoku, boosting the government’s drive to revive atomic power after the meltdown at Fukushima four years ago.

Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s No. 3 unit at the Ikata nuclear station in Ehime prefecture conforms with new safety rules, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said in the report. Commissioned in 1994, the pressurized water reactor has operating capacity of 890 megawatts.

The approval is just the third by the nuclear regulator since it was set up after the Fukushima disaster to independently review Japan’s nuclear power facilities and follows the introduction of tougher guidelines in July 2013.

“I understand we have spent much time in thorough discussions,” Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said at a meeting today. The regulator has conducted on-site inspections three times and held 73 review meetings since the utility applied for safety checks, he said.

NRA commissioners agreed to move to the next step of seeking public comment on their draft, before a final report is compiled. Shikoku Electric spokesman Shoichiro Mori reiterated today that the utility aims to restart the reactor by the end of the year.

Its stock rose 2.3 percent to 1,858 yen as of 2:06 p.m. in Tokyo, compared with a 1.2 percent gain in the benchmark Nikkei 225 index.

Following Procedures

The regulator’s inspectors found that Shikoku Electric is following procedures that would allow the reactor to operate safely, including in the event of accidents caused by earthquakes or other causes, according to the draft report.

The company also has procedures in place to stop the spread of radiation in the case of an accident, it said.

Even with the latest NRA report, the timeline for a resumption of operations at the Ikata unit is far from certain. The utility still needs local sign-off and must clear additional steps required by the regulator, including approval of construction work and other inspections.

Other utilities have run into problems even with the regulator’s stamp of approval on safety procedures.

Kyushu Electric Power Co. has yet to restart two reactors at its Sendai nuclear plant in southern Japan even after passing the NRA’s safety requirements and winning the backing of local residents last year.

Kansai Electric Power Co., the utility most dependent on nuclear power in Japan, has also faced hurdles.

Opposition

While the regulator in December judged two units at Kansai Electric’s Takahama station in compliance with new safety requirements, legal hurdles have since obstructed any restart. A district court in Fukui this week rejected the utility’s appeal of a ruling that prevents the resumption of operations at Takahama.

“The NRA ignores scientific evidence and major earthquake risks in its single-minded push to restart Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors,” Kazue Suzuki, nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace Japan, said today in a statement. “As the regulator demonstrated with Sendai and Takahama, and now with Ikata, it has utterly failed to learn the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.”

The majority of Japanese are against the restart of the country’s nuclear reactors. A poll conducted last month by Kyodo News shows 58.4 percent of respondents oppose atomic power.

Abe Backing

Still, the nuclear industry has the backing of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. According to a draft report compiled in April by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan anticipates that by 2030 nuclear power will account for as much as 22 percent of the country’s total electricity, close to the level seen before Fukushima.

Shikoku Electric’s Ikata reactor unit is likely to restart in the first or second quarter of 2016, analyst Hidetoshi Shioda at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. said in an April 30 report.

Ikata’s approval brings to five the number of reactors in Japan to clear the regulator’s new safety standards. None of the units, housed in three separate nuclear plants, have yet resumed operations.

Japan is likely to have 16 reactors with combined capacity of 15.3 gigawatts operating by the end of 2016, according to a May 13 research report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Japan’s 43 operable reactors remain off-line after the accident at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

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