UK | Japanese mayor takes bold step back to nuclear

Posted on July 4, 2011


UK | FINANCIAL TIMES | July 4, 2011 4:30 pm

The mayor of a small town in Japan has signed off the restart of two nuclear reactors, in a decision that could help avert a complete shutdown of Japan’s nuclear power stations.

The decision by the mayor of Genkai, a town in Saga prefecture in southwestern Japan marks the first time the mayor of a reactor-hosting municipality has signed off on a restart since the March 11 tsunami.

Meltdowns at three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi atomic station after the tsunami have turned a large swath of public opinion against nuclear power, and the government has promised a comprehensive energy-policy review.

But so far, authorities in Tokyo have forced only one other atomic plant to close. Instead, it is local governments that have thrown up the biggest hurdles for the eight regional utilities in Japan that rely on nuclear power.

Owing largely to local opposition, only 19 of the 54 reactors in use before the tsunami are producing electricity, and the utilities have warned that power shortages could spread across the country. The president of Kansai Electric, which serves Japan’s second city of Osaka, begged residents to turn off their air conditioners to avoid blackouts during a heatwave last week.

The problem has arisen because Japanese nuclear safety regulations require reactors to be shut down for inspection every 13 months. Before restarting them – usually after a few weeks – utilities need approval from local mayors and prefectural governors.

Although no national law gives local authorities power over the plants, utilities are loathe to be seen ignoring public opinion, and in many cases have signed over veto power in special agreements with their host districts. “It would be inconceivable to restart a plant if the local government said no,” a manager at Tokyo Electric Power, operator of Fukushima Daiichi, said.

By next May, the remainder of Japan’s operational reactors will have hit the end of their 13-month cycles, meaning that, in an extreme scenario, widespread opposition from local authorities could keep every plant off-line.

And so the decision by Hideo Kishimoto, mayor of Genkai, to let two local reactors restart after inspections will be greeted with relief by utilities and industry. It is the first time the mayor of a reactor-hosting municipality has signed off on a restart since the tsunami.

The central government and Kyushu Electric Power, the regional utility, put heavy pressure on Mr Kishimoto and Yasushi Furukawa, governor of Saga. Last week Banri Kaeda, industry minister, visited Mr Furukawa, who said he believed the reactors were safe but would withhold final judgment until Mr Kishimoto had made up his mind.

“We must strongly support the Japanese economy by helping to ensure a stable supply of electricity to western Japan,” Mr Kishimoto was quoted by Japanese media as saying on Monday.

His decision sets what is likely to be a strong precedent for mayors elsewhere in Japan, even if there are no guarantees that others will follow.

Leaders in some districts have declared their opposition to nuclear power, while elsewhere politicians are attaching expensive conditions to their support. Last month the legislature in Fukui – home to 11 reactors, the most of any prefecture – voted to raise a tax on the burning of uranium fuel by 17 per cent.

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