Green light to Oi restart almost certain next week

April 07, 2012

The government, desperate to avert power shortages this summer, is set to declare as early as next week that suspended reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture can be restarted.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three Cabinet ministers responsible for nuclear matters gave formal approval on April 6 to new draft provisional safety standards for restarting suspended nuclear reactors.

That decision marked a major step in the Noda administration's drive to get nuclear plants running before the start of summer, when electricity demand soars.

Of Japan's 54 nuclear power plants, only one is in operation right now. That facility, the Tomari plant in Hokkaido, is due to be shut down on May 5. Unless the Oi plant is restarted, Japan faces the prospect of having no nuclear plants in operation during the sweltering summer.

One of the three main pillars of the new standards, which were drafted just two days after Noda retracted a position that they were not necessary, is a requirement that nuclear plant operators must submit medium- to long-term plans for implementing new safety measures.

Such steps are now deemed necessary following computer-simulated stress tests on the nuclear reactors in line with a wider investigation into the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Kansai Electric Power Co., which operates the Oi plant, is expected to submit its implementation plan for Oi’s No. 3 and No. 4 reactors next week. Company officials said the document will comply with a central government request that it should contain specific deadlines for implementing the safety measures.

Yukio Edano, the economy, trade and industry minister who oversees the nuclear energy industry, also indicated on April 6 that electricity supply and demand would be taken into account in deciding whether a reactor should resume operations.

"If there is no need (for the electricity) then we will not make a decision to resume operations," Edano said at an April 6 news conference.

That new condition, which was included at the insistence of officials of the Fukui prefectural government, is unlikely to be an obstacle to getting the reactors back online because electricity demand will inevitably rise over the summer.

Sources said central government officials were in close, informal discussions with high-ranking Fukui prefectural government officials during the compilation of the new provisional safety standards, as well as the process of estimating electricity demand over the next few months.

That contact has encouraged optimism among central government officials that the Fukui prefectural government will go along with the new framework and allow the resumption of operations at the Oi reactors.

On April 6, Edano instructed officials of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to look into whether the Oi reactor met the new provisional standards.

Kansai Electric is almost certain to meet all the conditions for resumption when it submits the plan for implementing additional safety steps, because it has already implemented key measures to prevent total power failure at the plant and any interruption to cooling of the reactors.

Once the plan is submitted, the Noda administration will again hold a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers to agree on the safety of the Oi plant and give the green light for resumption of operations.

Formal approval for the resumption will be made by those ministers after local governments have given their consent.

It appears highly likely that local governments in Fukui Prefecture will go along with the new safety standards. However, it is unclear whether officials of neighboring prefectures will oppose the process.

Noda administration officials are particularly concerned about the unexpectedly strong resistance from Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. He has not only criticized the hasty manner in which the provisional safety standards were compiled, but, as head of the Osaka municipal government, the largest shareholder in Kansai Electric, he has called on the utility to move away from dependence on nuclear energy.

Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa has maintained a noncommittal stance on the restart, telling journalists at a March 26 news conference: "If I continue to comment on different issues, that might make the situation more complicated. And that could only lead to more misunderstanding."

Nishikawa, who will receive recommendations from relevant bodies within Fukui Prefecture before making his final decision, has since remained silent on the issue.

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Yukio Edano, the industry minister, explains the new provisional safety standards for resuming operations at nuclear power plants at a news conference on April 6. (Satoru Semba)

Yukio Edano, the industry minister, explains the new provisional safety standards for resuming operations at nuclear power plants at a news conference on April 6. (Satoru Semba)

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  • Yukio Edano, the industry minister, explains the new provisional safety standards for resuming operations at nuclear power plants at a news conference on April 6. (Satoru Semba)

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