Japan Vouches for Safety of Second Set of Atomic Reactors

Japan’s regulator vouched for the safety of two more nuclear reactors today, this time in the key industrial area of Kansai, bolstering the government’s drive to switch on atomic plants idled after the Fukushima disaster.

The approval for Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama station units No. 3 and No. 4, is only the second that the Nuclear Regulation Authority has granted in almost four years since the meltdowns at the Fukushima atomic station.

“In terms of the technical aspects, we approve the compatibility” of the reactors with new safety rules, the regulator said on page 430 of a 433-page draft report. NRA commissioners approved the draft at a meeting this morning in Tokyo, moving the process to public hearings after which the final report is approved.

The NRA report comes days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won re-election on a promise to revive the economy. While Abe has said atomic power is a key part of Japan’s electricity mix, the public remains largely opposed, according to opinion polls. Some of the reactor restarts also face legal challenges.

Clearing the NRA’s tougher safety standards is a first step and no dates have been given to resume operations at any of the 48 reactors idled for safety tests.

In July, the regulator certified the safety of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai station units No. 1 and No. 2. About five months later they remain offline as the operator runs more safety checks and tests public support for restarts in local communities.

Fuel Costs

Likewise, the two pressurized water reactors in Takahama in Fukui prefecture will likely remain closed for several more months, leaving Japan nuclear-free for much of the nation’s winter. The two Takahama reactors are almost 30 years old and have a combined capacity of 1.7 gigawatts.

Nuclear plants provided more than 25 percent of Japan’s electricity prior to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima plant in March 2011.

Fukui prefecture is in the Kansai region of Japan, north of Osaka and Kyoto on the Japan Sea coast. Its 14 reactors, the highest concentration in the world, provide power to the major cities and industries in the region.

The absence of nuclear power has come at a high cost in yen terms to replace the energy source with fuel imports, particularly liquefied natural gas. The government estimates regional power companies paid 3.6 trillion yen ($30.7 billion) more in fuel costs in fiscal 2013 compared with fiscal 2010 before Fukushima.

Election Win

Even after the regulator tabled the safety report on the reactors, Osaka-based Kansai Electric said it’s making preparations to raise electricity rates. The utility, which gets about 86 percent of its revenue from electricity generation, posted a loss of 97 billion yen in the year to March, and said today that another loss this fiscal year is unavoidable.

This week’s election win for Abe is expected to embolden the prime minister to push ahead with nuclear restarts.

A long-term energy plan approved by Japan’s cabinet in April identified nuclear as “an important base-load energy source,” while seeking to limit the country’s reliance on nuclear power.

Japan will restart 25 of the 48 reactors by 2018, according to projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The gap left by nuclear’s absence will continue to be filled mainly by liquefied natural gas, Yoko Nobuoka, an analyst for BNEF in Tokyo, said earlier this month.

LNG Imports

“A longer delay and reduced capacity of nuclear restarts implies that Japan’s LNG demand in the power sector will remain high,” BNEF wrote in a Dec. 3 research report.

In spite of Abe’s economic policy and political will, the nuclear lobby needs to overcome public disapproval that’s also backed by legal challenges. The Fukui District Court in May ruled in favor of a residents’ group, which seeks to prevent the restart of Kansai Electric’s Ohi station units No. 3 and No. 4.

The court said the need for nuclear power doesn’t trump an individual’s right to safety, Kyodo reported May 21.

The nuclear regulator is ignoring public concerns with its decision to approve safety measures at the Takahama station, environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement today.

“Any severe accident at Takahama would be devastating for Kansai’s people and economy –- there are no effective emergency plans existing that could protect the people in the region from radiation exposure,” according to the statement.

The International Energy Agency projects that much of Japan’s existing reactor fleet will gradually return to service following regulatory approvals. Japan’s installed nuclear power capacity will reach 33 gigawatts in 2040, the IEA said in its recently released World Energy Outlook for 2014.

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