Japan's Worst Quake Since 2011 Seen Delaying Nuclear Starts

  • Earthquakes on southern island of Kyushu kill 49 people
  • Japan lawyer group renews call for shutdown of Sendai reactors

Japan’s biggest earthquake in five years may slow a government plan to restart the country’s atomic fleet that was shuttered amid safety concerns after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the triple meltdown at Fukushima.

QuickTake Nuclear Power

A series of earthquakes, including a magnitude-7.3 tremor that struck about 119 kilometers (74 miles) from the Sendai nuclear facility on the southern island of Kyushu this month, destroyed hundreds of homes, snapped bridges and left at least 49 people dead. It has also revived an effort to halt the plants’ operations.

The events may delay Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of returning the country’s nuclear power plants to operation. About 60 percent of Japanese citizens oppose restarting reactors, according to a Nikkei newspaper poll from February, and the earthquake is intensifying pressure on the country’s nuclear regulator to vet safety rules.

“Nuclear is under a magnifying glass now, so even the smallest problem can create big delays,” Michael Jones, a Singapore-based gas and power analyst at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. said in an e-mail. “Fukushima has changed everything, and earthquakes and volcanoes are only making things worse.”

Transport Disruptions

Trains and highways were damaged in the Kyushu earthquake and if there is a nuclear accident from another earthquake or volcanic eruption, evacuations may be difficult, Datsugenpatsu Bengodan, a group of lawyers working to wean Japan off nuclear power said in an April 19 statement. The group said Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai No. 1 and 2 reactors, which were the first to restart under post-Fukushima safety rules last year, should be shut.

An e-mail to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority outside of normal business hours wasn’t immediately answered.

Evacuation Procedures

“Given this is the largest earthquake in over a century in Kyushu that has caused significant damage to infrastructure, it could slow down the pace of restarts,” said Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Mathyos, a Tokyo-based energy consultant. “It may now be even more imperative that emergency evacuation procedures are thoroughly tested.”

A nuclear accident at Sendai would require the evacuation of about 5,000 people in the surrounding 5 kilometers and more than 200,000 would need to seek immediate shelter within a 5- to 30-kilometer radius, according to a local government simulation from 2014.

The NRA, Japan’s nuclear regulator, said on April 18 that it sees no need to shut the two Sendai reactors. A high court on April 6 upheld a ruling that the Sendai reactors can withstand seismic damage and don’t pose a risk to the surrounding area.

A local court issued an injunction in March preventing the operation of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama No. 3 and 4 reactors, questioning whether evacuation plans and tsunami prevention measures -- which had been endorsed by the government -- were robust enough.

The earthquake near Japan’s only operating reactors “may boost the nation’s anti-nuclear sentiment,” Joseph Jacobelli, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said in an April 22 note. “Technical and political obstacles mean even those units approved for restart are returning at a snail’s pace.”

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