Fukushima water crisis threatens TEPCO's plan to restart reactors in Niigata

October 23, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

KASHIWAZAKI, Niigata Prefecture--The growing problem of radioactive water at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is stymieing attempts by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to reactivate an idled nuclear power plant here and return to profit.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority decided on Oct. 23 that its chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, will soon meet with TEPCO President Naomi Hirose to discuss safety control measures in light of leaks of contaminated water at the Fukushima plant, among other issues.

Restarting the reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant offers the utility the best chance of turning its finances around following the catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima plant triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The company started installing new venting equipment at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa site to put it in compliance with the NRA's safety regulation standards that took effect in July.

However, the NRA is not expected to start full-scale safety screenings for the No. 6 and No. 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility until Tanaka and Hirose have talked things over.

The NRA has not set a date to start the safety screenings due to TEPCO's mishandling of the radioactive water problem at the Fukushima plant.

The agency instructed TEPCO on Oct. 4 to show how it intends to thoroughly implement safety controls at the Fukushima plant. The utility submitted its report on Oct. 15. But the NRA was dissatisfied with the report and decided that Tanaka would have to hear directly from Hirose.

In addition, the boiling water reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa are the first to undergo safety screenings. Some of the conditions required for these reactors are different from those that apply to pressurized water reactors.

Another obstacle is Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida's wariness about reactor restarts.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is named after the two municipalities it straddles on the Sea of Japan. Its seven reactors have a combined output capacity of 8.212 gigawatts, making it one of the world's largest for a single power plant.

Its boiling water reactors are the same type as the ones at the devastated Fukushima plant.

TEPCO hopes to bring two of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors--No. 6 and No. 7--online by the end of fiscal 2014. Apart from the Fukushima No. 1 site and the Fukushima No. 2 site, which are not likely to be reactivated anytime soon, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant is the only nuclear facility that TEPCO has any hopes of restarting.

The new safety regulation standards for nuclear reactors stipulate that boiling water reactors can only be restarted after filtered venting equipment is installed.

The equipment is designed to lower pressure inside a reactor containment vessel in the event of a major accident while suppressing the amount of radioactive substances released into the environment.

Work at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on Oct. 22 involved installing a tank component for removing radioactive substances from vapor, a core element of the filtered venting equipment, on the No. 7 reactor.

Work started in January to reinforce the ground where the heavy equipment was to be installed.

TEPCO plans to finish installing filtered venting equipment on the No. 6 and No. 7 reactors before the current fiscal year ends in March.

TEPCO is reeling under ballooning costs for liquefied natural gas and other fuel to power its thermal plants, which are operating at full capacity to make up for its nuclear reactors that were shut down after the Fukushima disaster.

The utility was in the red in fiscal 2011 and 2012.

Each reactor restart at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant means that TEPCO will not have to shell out for additional fuel costs, which would improve its bottom line by more than 100 billion yen ($1.02 billion) annually.

The utility has no choice but to bank on early restarts to turn its financial situation around.

TEPCO needs to take out 300 billion yen in new loans, partly to repay its bonds, in December. In trying to persuade creditor banks to extend those loans, TEPCO is under pressure to present financial projections that ensure a return to the black in fiscal 2013.

Hirose, the TEPCO president, has said steady cost cutting will allow the utility to post a profit in fiscal 2013.

But that presupposes Kashiwazaki-Kariwa restarts in fiscal 2014, because it is only pushing back necessary expenditures to next fiscal year or later in an effort to make both ends meet in the current fiscal year.

Hirose has pledged to set aside 1 trillion yen to deal with the Fukushima radioactive water crisis over the coming decade, but that amount will be hard to find without nuclear restarts.

TEPCO is expected as early as in November to review its corporate rehabilitation plan and present financial projections incorporating reactor restarts.

(This article was compiled from reports by Kohei Tomida, Takashi Ebuchi and Ryuta Koike.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Workers mount a tank component of filtered venting equipment on the No. 7 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture on Oct. 22. (Kohei Tomida)

Workers mount a tank component of filtered venting equipment on the No. 7 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture on Oct. 22. (Kohei Tomida)

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  • Workers mount a tank component of filtered venting equipment on the No. 7 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture on Oct. 22. (Kohei Tomida)

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