Japan Regulator Expedites Safety Checks on Two Reactors

Japan’s nuclear regulator will expedite safety checks on two reactors in the country’s southwest in a major step toward restoring nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster three years ago.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority will focus its review on two reactors owned by Kyushu Electric Power Co. to assess if they meet new safety standards, officials said at a meeting in Tokyo today. The reactors are located in the city of Satsumasendai, Kagoshima prefecture, about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) from Tokyo.

“We are satisfied with the attitude Kyushu Electric Power has shown on measures against serious accidents,” Toyoshi Fuketa, an NRA commissioner, said at the meeting. “Inspections of the Sendai No. 1 and No. 2 reactors are going smoothly.”

The decision raises the prospects that nuclear power, which accounted for more than a quarter of Japan’s electricity generation before the Fukushima accident, may be partially restored ahead of peak power demand in summer.

Once the NRA deems reactors meet safety requirements, power utilities can ask the government and local authorities hosting the atomic plant to permit the restart.

Kyushu Electric’s two pressurized water reactors in Satsumasendai, commissioned in the mid 1980’s, are capable of producing a combined 1.7 gigawatts of power, according to the NRA’s website. Japan had about 50 gigawatts of nuclear capacity prior to the Fukushima accident, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Summer Restarts?

“We’d like to see the NRA implement rigorous checks based on what are seen as the toughest safety standards in the world,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo today. “After that, working with the local authorities, we’ll jointly make a judgment.”

The earliest restarts are likely no sooner than the summer months, based on the assumption that the NRA will give its preliminary approval in mid-April, Penn Bowers, an energy analyst with CLSA Pacific-Markets in Tokyo, said at a conference last month in Tokyo. A month-long period for public comment will follow the NRA decision, he said.

“Then you probably have some other local approval issues, so let’s say mid-June, and then you’re barely online for summer peak,” he said. The restarts may not happen until August or September, simply because “everything else has played out slower than I anticipated,” Bowers said.

Forgetting Fukushima?

No other country is as divided at the moment over nuclear energy as Japan. According to a poll this month published by the Tokyo Shimbun, 69 percent of respondents said nuclear power should be phased out over time or immediately. The March 1 and 2 poll surveyed 3,000 people with a 58 percent response rate.

“Rather than wasting enormous amounts of time and money on restart evaluations for risky reactors, the NRA should instead be focused on dealing with the ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima,” Kazue Suzuki, Greenpeace Japan nuclear campaigner, said today in response to the regulator’s decision.

Japan’s policy makers have sent mixed signals on energy policy and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he plans to restart reactors that are declared safe by the regulator, reversing the previous government’s intention to phase out nuclear power.

Though the government’s latest energy plan pledges to promote renewables, it also calls nuclear an important source of energy for a nation that relies on imports for almost all its fuel needs.

Fuel Costs

“It would be better if the government stopped talking about it and let the regulator do what they do,” Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo this week.

Japan’s 48 commercial reactors have been shut either because of earthquake damage or for maintenance or safety checks. The country has been nuclear-free since September 2013.

The absence of nuclear energy has been costly, forcing the nation’s utilities to import fossil fuels and resulting in record trade deficits. Imports of crude oil surged 28 percent in January, according to government data. Cleanup work also continues at the wrecked Fukushima plant, which is still leaking radioactive contaminants into the air and water.

Kyushu Electric

Kyushu Electric, based in Fukuoka, has posted combined losses of almost 500 billion yen ($4.87 billion) in the two full fiscal years since the Fukushima accident. The company, which also operates the Genkai nuclear power station 125 kilometers north of Nagasaki, provides power to seven southern prefectures.

“Kyushu Electric Power is enthusiastically adopting the new standards prescribed by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, while at the same time going beyond regulatory demands to achieve the world’s highest safety standards,” the company said in its 2013 annual report.

Four of Japan’s regional utilities -- Kansai Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co., Hokkaido Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric -- applied in July for safety checks.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, applied in September for reactors at its Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant in Niigata prefecture.

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