Japan Closer to Restarting First Reactors Since Fukushima

Japan’s government approved new safety measures for nuclear reactors, taking a step toward restarting the first atomic plant since the Fukushima disaster and to avert electricity shortages this summer that could set back the country’s economic recovery.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three of his Cabinet members -- the group of four with the final say on reactor restarts -- held talks last night and approved safety measures to allow switching on two Kansai Electric Power Co. reactors. The units have passed so-called stress tests introduced after the Fukushima meltdowns.

The government will now take the plan for approval by authorities in Fukui prefecture, about 95 kilometers (59 miles) northeast of Osaka, where the reactors are located in Kansai Electric’s Ohi plant. Once local approval is secured, the final decision to restart the two reactors goes back to the Cabinet group. That decision may come early next month, Kyodo News reported, citing the ruling party’s policy chief Seiji Maehara.

The Kansai Electric safety measures meet “what the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency requested,” Industry Minister Yukio Edano, one of the Cabinet’s group of four, said at a news conference streamed over the Internet after the meeting last night.

Kansai Electric, the Japanese utility most dependent on nuclear power at 49 percent, has warned that if all its reactors stay offline during peak summer electricity demand, power shortages may follow.

Power Cuts

The company’s electricity output without nuclear power may be 19.6 percent short of peak demand this summer if Japan is hit by a heat wave similar to the one in 2010, the trade and industry ministry said in a statement yesterday.

The company serves the Kansai area of western Japan that covers an area the size of Belgium, has an economy worth $1 trillion -- about the size of Mexico’s -- and is home to the cities of Osaka and Kyoto as well as factories of Sharp Corp. and Panasonic Corp.

Companies such as Komatsu Ltd., the world’s No. 2 maker of construction machinery, have said they will move factories overseas if electricity supply isn’t guaranteed.

Kansai Electric’s president Makoto Yagi met Edano in Tokyo yesterday on the safety standards.

“Though I think we have improved safety to prevent an accident similar to Fukushima, steps to increase safety never end,” Yagi said after the meeting.

‘Not Enough’

The government and Kansai Electric “fell short of scientifically and quantitatively explaining why some measures don’t need to be taken right now and what alternative safety measures have been secured,” Hironobu Unesaki, a nuclear engineering professor at Kyoto University, said by phone yesterday. “Their explanations are not enough.”

All but one of Japan’s 54 reactors are now offline after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami last year crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station.

The reactors, which previously supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, have either been closed by the March 11 disaster, government order or not allowed to restart after regular maintenance shutdowns. Nuclear reactors are closed every 13 months in Japan for maintenance and to replace uranium fuel rods.

Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s No. 3 reactor at its Tomari nuclear plant is the last reactor running and is due to come offline for regular maintenance on May 5, the company said in a statement on its website on March 26.

‘Rushing to Restart’

“It is so obvious the government is rushing to restart the Ohi reactors at any cost before the Tomari unit is shut,” Tomoko Murakami, a Tokyo-based nuclear analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, said by phone today.

The shutdown of the Tomari No. 3 reactor would become a symbolic defeat for those promoting nuclear power, because Japan would become nuclear free, she said. “But it’s really stupid if that’s the reasons behind the rush.”

Japan’s liquefied natural gas imports rose to a record in 2011 as utilities have been forced to rely on fossil fuel power plants to replace idled reactors.

Fuel costs at nine regional utilities that own atomic plants may more than double to about 7 trillion yen ($86 billion) in the year ending March 2013 if reactors remain shut, according to the report by the trade and industry ministry. Kansai Electric’s fuel bills may rise by 800 billion yen to about 1.1 trillion yen, it said.

The Fukushima nuclear meltdowns poisoned an area about half the size of New York City with radiation fallout. About 160,000 people were forced to evacuate and many areas around the plant will be uninhabitable for decades.

Jobs Needed

Japan’s central government has typically sought approval from local authorities to restart reactors, though it has no legal requirement to do so.

The Mayor of Ohi said safety measures taken so far at the plant are “sufficient,” Kyodo News reported, citing his comments at a press conference yesterday.

“It’s questionable to let the plant restart, but it’s a very difficult problem,” said Masataka Tamagawa, a Buddhist priest in Obama city, about 10 kilometers from the Ohi plant. “Many people in the city have a job related to Kansai Electric. It’s not easy to find work if the plant goes.”

Toshitaro Akai, a 66-year-old resident of Ohi town said life and safety are more important than a job.

“I’m against the restart of the nuclear plant; respect for human life should take priority over any other things and nuclear power is dangerous,” said Akai. “Japan should switch to other energy sources such as thermal and solar. If that means higher electricity bills, it can’t be helped.”