Electric power companies are banking on a change in government after the next Lower House election to reverse a decision that froze a decades-old project to build a nuclear plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Even the prefecture’s governor, Shigetaro Yamamoto, who made the decision, has said his stance could change depending on what happens in Tokyo.
“If (the central government) decides that it will use new, safer nuclear plants for some time, I will approach the issue in accordance,” he told a prefectural assembly session in September.
Yamamoto on Oct. 5 rejected an application from Chugoku Electric Power Co. to extend a license to reclaim land for the planned nuclear plant in Kaminoseki in the prefecture. He cited the Noda administration’s decision last month to phase out nuclear power generation by the 2030s under its Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment, which also ruled out the construction of new nuclear plants.
Under Chugoku Electric’s plan, two reactors, each with a capacity of 1.37 gigawatts, would be built in Kaminoseki, a coastal town in Seto Inland Sea.
Although the project emerged in 1982, the company has been unable to make significant progress due to local opposition.
But preparations to start the actual construction got under way following the town's approval in 1988. Under Chugoku Electric’s schedule, the Unit 1 reactor would go online in March 2018 and Unit 2 would start operating in fiscal 2022.
However, work was suspended after last year’s quake and tsunami triggered the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan.
Despite Yamamoto’s rejection and rising public sentiment against nuclear energy, Chugoku Electric has no plans to abandon the project.
“We need the Kaminoseki plant,” said Tetsuo Yoshitomi, an official in charge of preparatory work at the company. “We are not going to push the work for now, given the central government’s policy, but we want to maintain the status quo.”
Officials of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan said there is a chance that the Kaminoseki project will move forward if a new government takes charge after the Lower House election, which must be held by next summer.
Shinzo Abe, the new president of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party whose constituency is in Yamaguchi Prefecture, opposes the Noda government’s policy to abandon nuclear energy.
The LDP has fared far better than the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in recent opinion polls.
“It is a long, drawn-out contest to build a nuclear plant,” a federation official said. “We will hold out the longest in the fight against the movement to eliminate nuclear power.”
Anti-nuclear power moves in the government were led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan after the Fukushima nuclear crisis started. He asked Chubu Electric Power Co. to suspend operations at its Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture in May last year, saying the plant was located in a highly quake-prone area.
Kan’s successor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, has taken a more ambiguous approach.
Three reactors are currently under construction in Japan, and nine others, including two at Kaminoseki, are in the planning stage. The Noda government has approved the continuation of construction work despite its policy to phase out nuclear plants by 2039.
The central government also appears reluctant to get involved in the decisions on the fate of the Kaminoseki plant, and seems willing to let the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) decide whether to approve new nuclear power plant projects.
“Yamaguchi Prefecture should decide on the project,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said.
The new regulator has the authority to determine if reactors are safe enough to be brought online, and the NRA is expected to compile new guidelines by July on examining the safety of nuclear facilities.
But Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA, said the body is not in a position to give the green light to plans to build a nuclear plant.
“We will determine if a plant is safe or not,” he said. “But to judge whether to put the plant in operation is not our responsibility.”
Chugoku Electric has already applied to the NRA for safety approval of Unit 1 at the Kaminoseki plant.
The NRA is expected to examine the application, regardless of the prefecture’s rejection of the license extension to reclaim land for the planned plant.
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