Japan Heads for Nuclear Unknown With Reactor Restart

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Japanese nuclear plants
Workers conduct a drill to respond to an accident at the Sendai nuclear power plant on July 27, 2015. Photographer: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Japan is about to do something that’s never been done before: Restart a fleet of mothballed nuclear reactors.

The first reactor to meet new safety standards could come online as early as next week. Japan is reviving its nuclear industry after all its plants were shut for safety checks since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station north of Tokyo, causing radiation leaks that forced the evacuation of 160,000 people.

Mothballed reactors have been turned back on in other parts of the world, though not on this scale -- 25 of Japan’s 43 reactors have applied for restart permits. One lesson learned elsewhere is that the process rarely goes smoothly. Of 14 reactors that resumed operations after being offline for at least four years, all had emergency shutdowns and technical failures, according to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency and regulators in the U.S. and Canada.

“If reactors have been offline for a long time, there can be issues with long-dormant equipment and with ‘rusty’ operators,” Allison Macfarlane, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said by e-mail.

In Sweden, E.ON Sverige AB closed the No. 1 unit at its Oskarshamn plant in 1992 and restarted it in 1996. It had six emergency shutdowns in the following year and a refueling that should have taken 38 days lasted more than four months after cracks were found in equipment.

Industry Renaissance

Japan’s restarts are being closely watched as the Fukushima disaster snuffed out what was then called a global nuclear renaissance. Success in Japan might allow the industry to re-emphasize nuclear as carbon-free energy before international climate talks in Paris this year, where almost 200 nations will negotiate emission standards.

This week, the Obama administration outlined a limited role for U.S. nuclear plants in its carbon reduction rules, withdrawing some credit for existing nuclear units while giving credit to new reactors under construction.

The first Japanese reactor to restart is at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant on the southern island of Kyushu. It could be back online as soon as Aug. 10, according to the company.

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority has run safety checks and ensured that Kyushu Electric performed the maintenance required for a restart, Tadashi Yamada, an agency spokesman, said by e-mail. The authority’s rules require nuclear operators to prepare dozens of safety countermeasures, such as building a secondary control room and constructing larger tsunami walls.

The challenges facing the NRA are “absolutely unique worldwide,” said John Large, chief executive at Large & Associates, a London-based engineering consultant to the nuclear industry. “You have had the whole nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants closed down for four years.”

Long-Dormant

As problems can arise with long-dormant reactors, the NRA “should be testing all the equipment as well as the operator beforehand in preparation,” Macfarlane of the U.S. said by e-mail. Although the NRA “is a new agency, many of the staff there have long experience in nuclear issues,” she said.

Kyushu Electric has performed regular checks since the reactor was shut to ensure it restarts and operates safely, said a company spokesman, who asked not to be identified because of company policy.

“If a car isn’t used for a while, and you suddenly use it, then there is usually a problem. There is definitely this type of worry with Sendai,” said Ken Nakajima, a professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute. “Kyushu Electric is probably thinking about this as well and preparing for it.”

Nuclear plant operators shouldn’t feel obligated to meet restart deadlines at the expense of safety, said Dale Klein, another former head of the nuclear regulator in the U.S. and now an adviser to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima plant.

“The operators need to demonstrate a safety culture of stopping the startup if they encounter unexpected or unsafe conditions,” Klein said.

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