In a step toward restarting its Onagawa nuclear power plant, Tohoku Electric Power Co. has filed an application with the government’s nuclear watchdog for safety checks, a first among nuclear facilities affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The utility is keen for the No. 2 reactor at the Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture to come back online as its net profit has been weighed down with ballooning fuel costs to operate thermal power plants to make up for the suspension of nuclear plants.
Tohoku Electric filed the application with the Nuclear Regulation Authority on Dec. 27.
Operators of nuclear plants that are deemed to have higher risks have either applied or are preparing for safety screening applications for a restart at an earliest possible date to improve their financial standings.
Chugoku Electric Power Co. applied Dec. 25 for the NRA’s checks for its Shimane nuclear plant in Matsue, capital of Shimane Prefecture.
Chubu Electric Power Co. is expected to file an application for its Hamaoka nuclear plant in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, in January.
The Hamaoka plant is particularly controversial because it sits on the projected epicenter area of a long-predicted earthquake that could devastate the Tokai region. Chubu Electric is now building a 22-meter barrier to protect the plant from tsunami, 4 meters taller than initially planned, after scientists said there was a greater likelihood of a temblor spawning a tsunami taller than 18 meters.
Tohoku Electric’s Onagawa plant, with three reactors, was damaged by fire and other problems due to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The plant was shaken by a temblor registering lower 6 on the Japanese scale of 7. The tsunami that reached the plant was 13 meters, nearly as high as the ground where the plant stands.
Tohoku Electric’s safety check application is for the No. 2 reactor, which suffered relatively less damage than the other two reactors. Work to bolster quake resistance for the No. 2 reactor is already in progress.
The utility, based in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, has also begun work to raise the height of the coastal levee near the plant to 29 meters to prepare for a projected tsunami of 23.1 meters.
The company hopes to restart the No. 2 reactor in April 2016 or later.
Shigeru Inoue, vice president of Tohoku Electric, expressed confidence about the plant’s safety features.
“We have confirmed the safety of the plant on our own by conducting a special study,” he said.
The utility was in a hurry to proceed with the Onagawa plant first as it is expected to take a lot longer to prepare for safety screenings for its other facility, the Higashidori nuclear plant in Higashidori, Aomori Prefecture.
The Higashidori plant emerged basically unscathed from the 2011 disaster.
But experts say the facility sits on a possible active fault, forcing the company to halt preparations for safety applications.
The balance sheets of utilities have been hit hard since all their nuclear plants were shut down to meet the new safety standards, following the triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the wake of the 2011 quake and tsunami.
The situation is particularly serious for Kansai Electric Power Co., which relies on nuclear energy for roughly half of its electricity output, higher than any other utilities.
“If we cannot restart our idled reactors by summer, we may be forced to consider an additional hike in electricity rates,” said a Kansai Electric official.
The government is also pushing reactor restarts to prevent another rise in electricity rates.
It fears a further increase in rates could deliver an additional blow to the nation’s economy, which has begun to pick up with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic measures, since the consumption tax rate will rise from 5 percent now to 8 percent in April.
But no reactors are likely to go online during the current fiscal year ending in March due to a delay in the NRA's safety evaluations.
The NRA has accepted applications of 16 reactors at nine nuclear plants since July, including the Onagawa plant reactor, and has reported progress in checks of 10 reactors at six plants.
The screening process is stalled for the rest either due to a lack of sufficient measures to prepare for a severe accident or because applications were submitted only recently.
Even safety evaluations of the 10 reactors are not moving as fast as expected because the safety standards for nuclear facilities became more stringent after the Fukushima disaster, particularly in regard to preparedness for earthquakes and tsunami.
Even if electric power companies clear the new safety standards, they need to gain consent from local governments over a restart, a process that could require more time.
(This article was compiled from reports by Miho Tanaka, Norihisa Hoshino, Toshio Kawada and Ryuta Koike.)
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