Japan Regulator to Begin Checks at Tepco’s Niigata Reactors

Japan’s nuclear regulator will begin checking the safety of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s reactors in Niigata, northwest of Tokyo, a step toward restarting the world’s biggest nuclear facility.

The decision by the Nuclear Regulation Authority at a meeting today came more than six weeks after the utility, operator of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, applied for the checks. Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, has said restarting the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors in Niigata is key to a return to profit.

The regulator’s safety checks are playing out against the backdrop of mounting opposition to nuclear power in a nation that once derived more than a quarter of its electricity from the industry. Tepco’s handling of the cleanup at Fukushima and a string of mishaps ranging from water leaks to electrical cords chewed by rats have complicated the process.

Improvements at Fukushima Dai-Ichi “remain the highest priority,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said at today’s meeting. “We will need to monitor how things go and be strict in our instructions,” he said.

Tepco can’t restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility, the world’s biggest nuclear station by generating capacity, until the regulator inspects the plant and grants approval. The inspection could stop if serious trouble occurs at the Fukushima plant, Tanaka said.

Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, 220 kilometers (137 miles) northwest of Tokyo, consists of seven reactor units ranging in age from 16 years to 28 years, according to the NRA.

The company applied with the regulator to check the No. 6 and No. 7 units of the reactors on Sept. 27. The timing of the first meeting to discuss safety “won’t be too distant” though the date hasn’t been set, Tanaka said.

Tepco will also need to deal with Niigata Prefecture Governor Hirohiko Izumida, who’s been critical of its handling of nuclear operations. Izumida said last week that an investigation of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 must come before the restart.

The regulator’s secretary general, Katsuhiko Ikeda, had said on Oct. 28 that the NRA would decide on starting safety checks based on whether Tepco could demonstrate that it had made improvements on the water issues in Fukushima.

Tepco said last week that it will double the number of crews handling the water storage tanks at the Fukushima plant. The utility also intends to raise workers’ daily allowance by 10,000 yen ($100) and will build shower rooms and a meal-service center for workers at the facility.

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