Japan’s Nuclear Watchdog Shows Its Bark Has Some Bite: Energy

Japan’s nuclear regulator, set up to replace a predecessor that ignored warnings before the atomic disaster in Fukushima, looks set to deliver a ruling that will permanently shut at least one nuclear plant and maybe more.

An advisory board appointed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority said yesterday that an earthquake fault running under the country’s oldest reactor at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga plant is active. Laws in Japan, which experiences about 10 percent of the world’s earthquakes, prohibit building reactors on active faults.

Tsuruga is one of six plants the regulator is probing for active faults after the quake and tsunami off Fukushima in March 2011 caused the meltdown of three reactors. Plants including those run by Kansai Electric Power Co., Hokuriku Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. also are under investigation.

“Japan Atomic’s survival is now in doubt,” Takashi Aoki, a Tokyo-based fund manager at Mizuho Asset Management Co., said by phone yesterday. This also raises the risk for other operators facing similar investigations, and investors will take note of that, he said.

Japan Atomic would have 256 billion yen ($2.5 billion) in losses if the company closes its two reactors in Tsuruga and one at its Tokai Dai-Ni plant, exceeding its 163 billion yen in net assets, the trade and industry ministry estimated last June. The ministry oversees the country’s power companies.

Japan Atomic’s Dai-Ni station lost external power during the earthquake and tsunami that wrecked Tokyo Electric’s Dai-Ichi station 110 kilometers north up the coast. The plant was closed after the disaster.

Prepared for Earthquakes

Scrutiny of earthquake preparedness has increased as well in Europe. Electricite de France SA, the world’s biggest operator of reactors, was required to strengthen the concrete base of its Fessenheim nuclear power plant by the end of the year to better protect it against earthquakes.

Fessenheim, the oldest French nuclear plant, is located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Swiss city of Basel that in 1356 was demolished by one of the most damaging historically documented earthquakes in central Europe. French President Francois Hollande has pledged to close Fessenheim by the end of 2016 after protests against it in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Japan Atomic, which is owned by the country’s 10 regional utilities, including Tokyo Electric Power Co., has traded barbs for months with the regulator over Tsuruga.

‘Very Regrettable’

“It is very regrettable and unacceptable that such a decision was made” as the company has repeatedly explained the fault in question is not active, Japan Atomic said in a statement yesterday. The report is not based on “objective facts and data,” it said.

The Tsuruga report will be delivered to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Kunihiko Shimazaki, who led the investigations, said yesterday in Tokyo.

Once a fault line moves directly under a nuclear reactor “it will easily run into a serious situation,” Shimazaki said yesterday at the meeting.

Japan Atomic plans to complete its investigations on the fault by the end of June, it said in a statement last month.

Fast Breeder

Separately, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said today it will order the Japan Atomic Energy Agency to keep its Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor idled until the operator improves its safety management system.

The decision came after the operator reported in November it failed to properly inspect thousands of pieces of equipment, according to the regulator.

The Monju reactor, which uses reprocessed spent plutonium and uranium for fuel, has been plagued with challenges.

The reactor had a sodium leakage in August 1995 three months after it started power generation for the first time. The JAEA resumed test operation of the reactor in May 2010 after 14 years of suspension. In August 2010, a fuel exchange device fell into the reactor, and the unit has been shut ever since, the regulator said today in a statement.

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