Japan's nuclear authority said March 19 it will not order two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture to be shut for screening when new safety standards, yet to be finalized, take effect in July.
All of the nation's 50 nuclear reactors were shut down after the meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture triggered by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of the Oi plant, operated by Kansai Electric Power Co., are the only ones that have been reactivated.
The government's nuclear industry watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, is expected to screen the two Oi reactors under the new safety standards, but only after they are shut down in September for regular inspections. As a result, Kansai Electric will likely be able to keep the reactors operating this summer months when power demand peaks.
Offline nuclear reactors will only be allowed to restart after NRA screenings under the new safety standards.
A draft outline, which the NRA presented in late January, said the new standards will make it compulsory for power utilities to step up measures against grave accidents, earthquakes and tsunami.
The underlying idea is one of "back-fitting," which means existing nuclear reactors have to keep up with upgrades in safety standards if they are to be restarted.
The NRA's chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, made clear March 19 that the Oi reactors, the only ones operating in July, will be screened after they have finished regular inspections.
"Back-fitting must be one that can be put into operation without causing confusion as soon as the new standards come into effect," Tanaka said in a "personal proposal" that he presented to a regular NRA meeting, only four months ahead of the scheduled upgrading of the safety standards.
The decision to keep the Oi reactors running and not shut them down in July was reached to avoid setting precedent in which nuclear reactors would have to be taken offline each time new safety measures were required.
The NRA noted it is a general rule in other countries to allow a certain grace period for safety measures to be implemented.
Tanaka emphasized that his proposal is aimed purely at facilitating a smooth introduction of the back-fitting mechanism.
"Back-fitting would be impracticable without a grace period," he said. "The mechanism is a trump card in that it enhances the safety of nuclear reactors in Japan."
Tanaka's latest comments suggest he is backpedaling on the issue. In January, he said the NRA could order the Oi reactors to be shut down before September, saying it cannot treat them as exceptions.
The Abe administration has overturned the previous government's pledge to pull Japan out of nuclear power generation by the 2030s.
Power utilities have griped to the NRA that the creation of multiple safety mechanisms, which will be obligated under the new safety standards, will pose too much burden on them.
A senior NRA official denied that the lobbying had influenced the NRA's latest decision.
"The NRA's independence is guaranteed by law," the official said. "And Tanaka is not someone who is easily swayed."
Tanaka did say, however, the Oi nuclear reactors will undergo preliminary, advance inspections that will start around mid-April and last for three months. Those inspections will be designated an administrative procedure, not statutory screening, because the new safety standards will not have taken effect.
During a March 19 news conference, Tanaka emphasized the NRA could call for shutdowns of the Oi reactors if serious safety problems are found. But he did not specify the nature of such problems.
A senior Kansai Electric official was clearly thrilled by the NRA's decision.
"While we have made an array of requests (to politicians), I never expected they would come true so soon," the official said.
The power industry faced its darkest hour following the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant two years ago. But everything changed when Abe's pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party defeated the Democratic Party of Japan by a landslide in December's Lower House election.
The NRA remains a thorn in the side of the government. It has stood in the way of reactor restarts by pointing out the presence of possible active geological faults beneath nuclear plant sites and by demanding costly safety measures.
The power industry has waged an all-out offensive against the NRA, while stepping up its lobbying of LDP politicians.
"The LDP cannot likely afford to make any bold moves until the Upper House election in July," said one source in the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. "The approval for Oi has virtually set the stage for the restarts of other reactors."
Local government leaders responded by calling for early safety screenings under the new standards.
The mayor of Oi, Shinobu Tokioka, called on the NRA to provide assurances that the reactors there will operate safely.
"Residents cannot have a peace of mind as long as they don't know if the new standards are being met," Tokioka said March 19.
"I only want thorough screenings," said Masaaki Fukui, mayor of Takashima in neighboring Shiga Prefecture.
Nuclear opponents in municipalities hosting nuclear plants criticized the NRA decision.
"The logic behind it prioritizes the economy over life," said Harumi Kondaiji, a 62-year-old anti-nuclear advocate and city assembly member of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. The body is dominated by atomic energy proponents. "This marks the first step toward the erosion of public trust in the NRA."
"The situation is no different from the former Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency's cozy relationship with the power industry," said Teruyuki Matsushita, a 64-year-old anti-nuclear activist who formerly served on the town assembly in Mihama, Fukui Prefecture.
(Ryuta Koike, Naoki Tsuzaka and Kentaro Uechi contributed to this article.)
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