JAPAN | Reactor age now in question amid METI restart push

Posted on August 3, 2011


JAPAN | JAPAN TIMES | 3 August 2011

On June 24, a senior official in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry pressed Tatsuo Kawada, chairman of the Fukui Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to use his influence and family connections to help restart halted nuclear reactors in his prefecture.

Kawada is a relative of the Fukui governor, Issei Nishikawa. The METI official, whose name has been withheld, made the overture around the time efforts were afoot, including using dubious methods, to restart reactors at the Genkai nuclear plant in Saga Prefecture.

“Using the Genkai (reactors) as a breakthrough, we want to resume the operation of the Fukui reactors,” the METI official reportedly told Kawada. “We will accept any request from the business world.”

The Genkai reactors haven’t been restarted, in part because Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered stress tests on all of the nation’s reactors, but also because it appeared Kyushu Electric Power Co. had tried to use “plants” to talk up the restart during a METI-sponsored TV program.

Of the 54 reactors across the nation, only 16 are currently operating. In addition to Kyushu Electric, which depends heavily on nuclear power, the government was hoping to restart the 13 reactors in Fukui Prefecture to ensure Kansai Electric Power Co. had a stable power supply.

But the Fukui governor had to give the green light. Two out of Fukui’s 13 reactors have operated for more than 40 years, and another six for more than 30 years, making them “elderly.”

Because the reactors at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had been in operation for at least 30 years, Fukui prefectural officials suspected age played a part in the March 11 accident that led to three meltdowns.

There is no law covering how many years a reactor can operate, but utilities build them under the assumption that they can run between 30 and 40 years.

According to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, it took about 80 hours for the fuel rods of the 36-year-old reactor 2 at Fukushima No. 1 and 34-year-old reactor 3 to melt down to the bottom of their pressure vessels after the March quake and tsunami struck the plant. Meanwhile, it took only five hours for the nuclear fuel in 40-year-old reactor 1 to do likewise.

In Fukui, reactor 1 at the plant in the town of Mihama started operations in November 1970, making it the oldest commercial pressurized water reactor in Japan.

“Among the reactors in east Japan hit by the disaster, it was only those at the Fukushima No. 1 plant that experienced serious troubles,” said Mihama Mayor Jitaro Yamaguchi. “We want more explanation on whether the reactors’ deterioration was the problem.”

NISA officials have repeatedly denied that reactor age played a part in the accident.

But Gov. Nishikawa said July 28, “the government needs to come up with a new safety criteria on reactors’ deterioration based on the Fukushima accident.” He went on to rule out giving the OK to restart the Fukui reactors at least until his demand was met.

Fukui at present has only four reactors in operation. Reactor 1 at the Ohi nuclear plant shut down due to technical trouble and reactor 4 at the Ohi plant and the Takahama plant’s reactor 4 were halted for regular checks.

Ahead of July 25, when Mihama’s reactor 2 marked 39 years of operations, Kepco submitted a paper to NISA reporting that the reactor could keep running for more than 40 years.

“It is important to make full usage of nuclear reactors if their safety has been confirmed,” Kansai Electric Vice President Hideki Toyomatsu said.

The Fukushima crisis has foreclosed on the possibility of building new reactors anytime soon, and thus the aging ones will have to continue serving.

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