Political decision looming on restarts of Oi reactors

March 14, 2012

The government is expected to decide by the end of March whether it is safe to restart two reactors at a nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.

The No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant would effectively be the first to be brought back online after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was crippled by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) on March 13 finished checking the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s appraisal of the results of computer-simulated stress tests for the two reactors.

It will compile a final report as early as next week, which will complete technical procedures for safety confirmation before restarting the reactors and put the ball firmly in the politicians’ court.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will meet with Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, industry minister Yukio Edano and nuclear accident minister Goshi Hosono, likely before the month is out, to confirm whether it is safe to restart the reactors.

The government will seek approval for restarting the reactors from local governments after the safety issue is settled. If it obtains consent, Noda, Fujimura, Edano and Hosono will meet again to make a decision to restart the two reactors.

Noda is keen to have suspended reactors up and running by summer, fearing a drag on the nation’s economic activities from electricity shortages.

Only two of the nation’s 54 reactors are in operation. They will be shut down for regular maintenance by the end of April.

“The government will make all-out efforts to explain (the situation) to local governments and gain their understanding,” Noda told a news conference on March 11. “I myself have to take the lead.”

But it is far from clear whether local governments, as well as the public, support reactors being restarted.

The Fukui prefectural government has been calling for the establishment of provisional safety standards incorporating the lessons from the Fukushima accident as a condition for the restarts.

Eighty percent of respondents to an Asahi Shimbun poll on March 10 and 11 said they do not trust the government’s safety measures for nuclear power plants.

Fifty-seven percent were opposed to restarting suspended reactors, compared with only 27 percent in favor.

The NISA has endorsed the results of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s first-stage stress tests for the Oi reactors. Haruki Madarame, the NSC’s chairman, has said the first-stage tests alone are insufficient to evaluate the safety of reactors.

The NSC’s final report is expected to call for the implementation of second-stage tests, which are not a precondition for restarts. Electric power companies have not submitted the results of second-stage tests even though the deadline was the end of December.

The NISA ordered electric power companies to take emergency safety measures at nuclear power plants shortly after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

It also presented 30 safety measures in February after studying details of the accident.

The NSC will compile a report on how to review guidelines for safety design appraisal and disaster prevention for nuclear power plants by the end of March.

But these measures will be incorporated into safety standards for nuclear power plants only after revisions to relevant laws take effect around January next year.

A new nuclear regulatory agency that will be in charge of the task is expected to be set up under the Environment Ministry on April 1, incorporating the NISA, part of the industry ministry, and the NSC, under the Cabinet Office.

But it remains unclear whether the bill required for establishing the agency will pass the Diet in time because some opposition lawmakers are calling for a more independent organization.

A lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan who once served as a Cabinet minister said the government must decide whether to restart reactors after the agency starts operations.

“It does not make sense to decide whether to restart reactors based on the evaluation by the NISA, which lost public trust,” the lawmaker said.

The NSC did not admit members of the public into its meeting on March 13 and only allowed them to watch live footage of proceedings in a separate room.

About 20 people opposed to reactors being restarted demanded the NSC secretariat that they be allowed to sit in on the meeting.

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Opponents to reactors being restarted demand that they be allowed to sit in on a meeting of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan on March 13. (Eiji Hori)

Opponents to reactors being restarted demand that they be allowed to sit in on a meeting of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan on March 13. (Eiji Hori)

  • Opponents to reactors being restarted demand that they be allowed to sit in on a meeting of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan on March 13. (Eiji Hori)
  • The Oi nuclear power plant (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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