JAPAN | Local officials saying no to restarting nuclear reactors

Posted on June 14, 2011

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JAPAN | ASAHI SHIMBUN | 14 June 2011 

By the time summer temperatures peak in August across Japan, only 14 of the nation’s 54 nuclear reactors will be churning out electricity to cope with the demand, due to the effects of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Since the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in Fukushima Prefecture started on March 11, nuclear power plants across the country have faced difficulty in resuming operations of some of their reactors that have been closed for regular inspections.

Moreover, the governments of prefectures or municipalities where those plants are located are strengthening their positions that they cannot allow the operations to resume unless the central government provides new safety standards that can prevent crises like the current one at the Fukushima plant.

As of June 11, operations at 35 nuclear reactors had been suspended due to the effects of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake or regular inspections, which have to be conducted once every 13 months in principle. The 35 include the No. 1 to No. 4 reactors at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In addition to the 35, five more reactors are scheduled to enter into regular inspections by August and will be shut down.

Operations of 11 of the 35 nuclear reactors were originally scheduled to be resumed by August. The 11 do not include those affected by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami. As a result, a total of 25 reactors were expected to be operating in August, but in the current safety climate, that number has been reduced to 14.

A major reason is that electric power companies that operate about 15 nuclear power stations have safety agreements with the governments of prefectures or municipalities. When they want to resume operations of reactors that have been closed, they are required to obtain approval from those local governments.

Nuclear power generation accounted for 29 percent of the total power generation of all electric power companies in Japan in fiscal 2009.

Electric power companies plan to cover the expected shortage of electricity from the suspension of nuclear reactors by raising the operating rates of thermal power plants. However, it will be difficult to do so for some electric power companies that have relied too much on nuclear power generation.

The Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO), which has 11 nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, is one of these. As six of their reactors will be unusable in August, the utility is asking companies and families to cut their power consumption by 15 percent.

In its pre-earthquake plan, KEPCO had assumed that four of the six reactors would resume operations by August, with the total output capacity of the four reactors at about 3.17 million kilowatts.

Meanwhile, Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa has yet to change his position that the safety measures taken by the government after the accidents at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are inadequate.

The government submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on June 7 a report on the crisis at the Fukushima plant. In response, Nishikawa opined, “The report does not sufficiently contain safety standards our prefecture has sought.”

By saying so, he inferred that the report was done for the benefit of IAEA, and not for the governments of prefectures or municipalities where nuclear power plants are located.

Meanwhile, Shikoku Electric Power Co. (Yonden) and Kyushu Electric Power Co. (Kyuden) are arguing that unless they can resume the operations of nuclear reactors that are currently halted for regular inspections by August, they could face power shortages.

Kyuden is operating Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture. However, it still cannot resume operations of the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors, whose operations were suspended for regular inspections.

On June 9, Saga Governor Yasushi Furukawa took a cautious approach on the timing of the resumption of operations, saying, “I have no timetable (on the issue).”

“Though we are also discussing about the necessity (of electricity), we want to put top priority on the confirmation of safety,” he said.

Local businesses are calling for resumption of operations of the two reactors to secure a stable supply of electricity.

In late March, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry instructed electric power companies to take emergency measures to prepare for possible tsunami, which included the deployment of vehicles that can supply electricity.

In May, the ministry allowed electric power companies to resume operations of nuclear reactors that have been halted due to regular inspections.

However, few heads of local governments are willing to accept the resumption of operations, despite these safety measures. Many are demanding that the central government review safety standards on nuclear power plants.

However, it is difficult to enact safety measures that can meet the scale of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which were much larger than those assumed under the current safety standards. Therefore, it is difficult to predict when the operations will be resumed.

In May, the government ordered Chubu Electric Power Co. (Chuden) to suspend operations of nuclear reactors at its Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture on the grounds that there is a high possibility that a major earthquake could strike the area.

In response to the move, some of the other local governments are demanding that the government explain why nuclear reactors other than those at Hamaoka can be operated.

In Aomori Prefecture, the operation of one reactor remains halted and the construction of two other reactors is suspended. Aomori Governor Shingo Mimura has no intention of accepting the resumption of operations or the new construction unless an examination committee set up by the prefectural government supports the resumptions.

Mimura, who was re-elected to a third term in the June 5 gubernatorial election, met Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda on June 8. In their talks, Kaieda said, “There are no safety problems for the continuation or resumption of operations (of nuclear reactors).” But Mimura did not change his position.

As the chairman of the organization consisting of prefectures where nuclear power plants are located, Mimura asked the government to take sufficient safety measures for those plants.

As for the government’s position of requiring Chuden to suspend operations of reactors at its Hamaoka plant while allowing other utilities to continue operating their nuclear reactors, Mimura said, “It is difficult to see what aspects the government looked at in approving the operation of those reactors.”

Nuclear power plants are dealing with various problems, such as the safety of aging plants, the decommissioning of some, quake-resistance capabilities, storage of spent nuclear fuel, and radioactive waste.

As for those problems, more and more local governments are asking the central government and utilities to present concrete safety measures and explain them to local residents.

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