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Japanese utilities apply to restart 10 nuclear reactors

01 August 2013

Four Japanese regional utilities have applied to restart 10 nuclear reactor units under new safety regulations introduced to prevent a recurrence of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. On July 8 the utilities - Kansai Electric, Shikoku Electric, Hokkaido Electric and Kyushu Electric - requested safety inspections from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), the new body set up in September 2012 to replace the former, much-criticised nuclear regulatory agency.

All of Japan’s 50 reactors were shut down after the disaster for safety assessments after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 11, 2011 caused meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, owned and operated by Tokyo Electric (Tepco). Up until now, only the 3 and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric’s Ohi plant have been allowed to restart

The ten reactors concerned are Kansai Electric’s Takahama 3 and 4, Hokkaido Electric’s Tomari 1,2 and 3, Shikoku Electric’s Ikata 3, and Kyushu Electric’s Genkai 3 and 4 and Sendai 1 and 2 units.

These reactors are all pressurized-water reactors, a design deemed less vulnerable than Fukushima-style boiling-water reactors to the kind of disaster that struck at Fukushima. 

If the safety inspections go to plan, the utilities expect to be able to restart their reactor units before the end of March 2014. Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA, estimated the approval process would take around six months. In late June, Tanaka said he needed more personnel to cope with restart applications. The authority says its 80 inspectors can only review three reactors at a time.

According to Bloomberg, Japan’s nine utilities with atomic plants reported combined losses of 1.59 trillion yen ($16 billion) in the year ended March 31. Only Hokuriku Electric Power Co. posted a profit. The restarts will enable these four utilities to return to profitability in the fiscal year ending March 2015.

Japan has relied on fossil fuels to fill much of its energy gap since Fukushima, paying 24.7 trillion yen ($250 billion) for oil, gas and coal in the year to March 2013, Bloomberg says. This is an increase of 36% on the 12 month period before the disaster.

A set of regulations presented in April by the Nuclear Regulation Authority requires all reactors to adopt the latest safety measures. The overhauls needed for these 10 relatively new plants are less extensive than those required by older reactors.

The new rules stipulate that no reactors will be allowed to operate if they are on active geological fault lines. Experts are still assessing whether Kansai Electric’s Ohi plant, which has the country’s only two operational reactors, meets this requirement. Both reactors are due to shut for maintenance in September.

Tepco is seeking support from Niigata prefecture officials to apply for a safety assessment for the 6 and 7 reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. The utility, which had a 685.3 billion yen ($6.9 billion) loss last fiscal year, said in May 2012 that it would return to profit this year if it was allowed to restart the reactors at this plant.

The Kashiwazaki plant was the only one of the company's three nuclear power stations unaffected by the March 2011 tsunami. However it did suffer an earthquake which triggered an automatic shutdown in 2007, after which it took the utility more than a year to complete repairs and gain approval to resume operations.

The Wall Street Journal points out that these restart requests come amid campaigning for the July 21 elections to the upper house of parliament. Though recent polls show more than half the Japanese population is opposed to nuclear power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party is expected to score an overwhelming victory.

Since taking office in December, Abe's administration has pushed for the restoration of nuclear power to reduce energy imports. 

The NRA has meanwhile asked Tepco to speed up completion of a seawall to protect the ocean from rising levels of contamination detected in the Fukushima nuclear plant’s groundwater. Tepco has struggled with the handling of contaminated water at Fukushima and recently said levels of caesium 137 in the plant’s groundwater were almost 250 times those considered safe for an atomic plant.

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