Utilities seeking restarts have support of pro-nuclear government

July 09, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

With a pro-nuclear administration chomping at the bit, Japan is expected to bring at least one nuclear reactor back online as early as winter, after the two already running are shut down in autumn.

Four electric power companies on July 8 applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for restarting 10 reactors at five plants based on the new safety standards incorporating lessons from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture is expected to be the first to get restarted. Key equipment items have been constructed, and there is a low risk of the plant being swamped by a massive tsunami.

The No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture also face few hurdles.

The NRA will confirm whether reactors satisfy the new standards through a safety screening, whose conclusion is expected in six months or so.

Electric power companies also need to obtain consent from local governments that host nuclear plants and approval from the central government before restarting reactors. However, approval from local governments for restarting these 10 reactors is believed to be relatively easy for the four utilities to gain.

The pro-nuclear Abe administration plans to bring idle reactors back online as soon as NRA safety screenings are over.

“We are responsible for supplying energy at low cost and in a stable manner,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on a TV program on July 5. “We want to restart those reactors the NRA judged as safe.”

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party stands equally committed.

“If we are to be responsible for Japan’s economy, we have no other choice but to restart reactors whose safety has been confirmed,” Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba told reporters on July 8. “We will never avoid that responsibility.”

Japan’s 50 reactors, except for two, have all remained offline after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was crippled by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture were reactivated last June based on provisional procedures. They are among the 10 reactors because they will be shut down in September for regular inspections.

The four utilities—Kansai, Shikoku, Kyushu and Hokkaido Electric Power Co.—are desperate to restart reactors to turn around their operations because they depended on nuclear energy for more than 40 percent of their electricity supply.

In the fiscal year ended in March, eight regional utilities, including these four, incurred a combined loss of 1.6 trillion yen ($15.80 billion) due mainly to fuel costs for thermal power generation that made up for lost capacity at nuclear plants.

Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric raised household electricity rates in May, and Shikoku Electric and Hokkaido Electric have applied for increases.

“The reactivation of reactors is necessary not to inconvenience our customers with higher electricity rates,” said Toru Yoshizako, executive vice president of Kyushu Electric.

Opposition parties have criticized the Abe administration for rushing headlong to restart idle reactors.

“The LDP is trying to promote nuclear energy without any debate,” said Goshi Hosono, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Hosono was trying to set the DPJ apart from the LDP ahead of the crucial July 21 Upper House election.

The government plans to postpone discussions on a percentage of electricity supplied by nuclear power for 10 years, without specifying a figure in a basic energy plan to be compiled at the end of the year.

The DPJ, which was in power when the accident started at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, also supports restarting reactors whose safety has been confirmed by the NRA. The DPJ government approved the reactivation of the Oi reactors last year.

But the party has continued to call for halting operations of nuclear plants by the 2030s, a goal set before it was ousted from power by the LDP in a Lower House election in December.

The Japan Restoration Party, whose campaign promise is phasing out nuclear energy by the 2030s, said it is premature to restart reactors now.

“We must tide ourselves over with other energy sources until the safety standards are met,” Ichiro Matsui, the party secretary-general, said.

The Japanese Communist Party is dead set against restarting reactors.

A telephone survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun on July 6-7 found that 48 percent of respondents opposed the LDP’s stance backing the reopening of nuclear plants, compared with 34 percent who support the party’s stance.

Seventy percent of respondents said they will consider the issue of nuclear plants either “greatly” or “to some extent” when they vote in the Upper House poll.

The LDP has refrained from turning nuclear policy into a key campaign issue for the election. A senior party official in charge of policy issues said nuclear policy cannot be translated into votes.

As the four utilities turn to local governments for approval for restarting the reactors at the five plants, they face mixed reactions from residents.

One of the plants is Kansai Electric’s Takahama plant in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture.

“Young people in this district are engaged in work related to the nuclear plant. I want to see the plant restarted soon,” said a 66-year-old Takahama resident.

“There will not be a limit if we think about what would happen beyond expectations,” he said of safety measures. “The plant was safe until now. They can consider (safety measures) after the plant is restarted.”

The operator of a grocery store 2 kilometers from Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant said the area would have been virtually deserted without the nuclear plant.

His store derived half of its sales from vegetables and fish sold to hotels and inns. But orders halved after regular inspections for the nuclear plant were suspended following the Fukushima accident.

Local governments are trying to attract solar and wind power generation companies to help take the place of nuclear power.

But the grocery operator, 52, said, “With wind or solar power, people will not come. Roughly 2,000 workers come for a regular inspection of the nuclear plant.”

A 35-year-old homemaker in Satsuma-Sendai, where the Sendai plant is located, said she did not pay any special attention to the nuclear plant but the Fukushima nuclear disaster changed her way of thinking.

“I will be concerned as long as the plant is in operation even if it passes a safety screening,” she said. “I hope Japan will become a society that can meet electricity requirements without nuclear plants, with people saving energy.”

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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An executive of Kansai Electric Power Co., right, submits an application for restarting nuclear reactors in Tokyo on July 8. (Kazuhiro Nagashima)

An executive of Kansai Electric Power Co., right, submits an application for restarting nuclear reactors in Tokyo on July 8. (Kazuhiro Nagashima)

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  • An executive of Kansai Electric Power Co., right, submits an application for restarting nuclear reactors in Tokyo on July 8. (Kazuhiro Nagashima)
  • An anti-nuclear activist hands a statement protesting applications for restarting nuclear reactors to an official of the Nuclear Regulation Authority in Tokyo on July 8. (Yusaku Kanagawa)
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