For the first time since the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi three years ago, Japan faces a summer without the prospect of electricity from nuclear power plants. This is despite the atomic regulator’s decision July 16 to affirm the safety of two reactors in the far western corner of the country.
As was widely expected, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) officially affirmed that the Sendai plants, owned and operated by the Kyushu Electric Power Company, conformed to the revised set of safety requirements that were adopted in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident.
That doesn’t mean that the two units will go on line anytime soon. In the first place, the report is in draft form and won’t be confirmed for a month following public hearings, likely to be very contentious. Then there follows a two-month inspection of the hardware, leading to a possible restart in October.
That’s too late to meet summer’s peak demand, meaning Japanese face another summer of setsuden (the Japanese word for energy conservation). The lack of nuclear power’s contribution is felt most acutely in the western part of the country which was most dependent on nuclear power.
Last summer, a special dispensation from the national government allowed two units of the Kansai Electric Power Co. in Fukui prefecture to stay on line until September, when the hottest parts of the summer had passed. This year no reactors will be operating until the autumn at the earliest.
Both utilities are operating on extremely slim margins, in both cases less than 2 per cent reserves, to meet the summer load requirements. For the fourth year since the accident, Japanese utilities will be depending heavily on imported substitutes, especially natural gas. The government estimates that Japan has spent ¥4 trillion on fossil fuel imports due in part to the weakness of the yen.
In addition, Japan’s nine utilities with nuclear power plants have been spending billions of dollars on extensive renovations, in Sendai’s case, building multiple sea walls to contain any future tsunami and placing large capacity emergency generators on high ground. Some 3,100 workers are swarming over the Sendai plants, which normally require a crew of about 600 to run the plants during normal operations. Similar ratios can be found at other plants
The nine utilities in the country with nuclear power plants are desperate to get their idled units on line again. Before the four units at Fukushima were taken out in March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, Japan boasted 54 nuclear reactors. At the moment, it still has 48 operable (i.e. not slated for decommissioning) nuclear plants all out of commission.
In the wake of the accident, Japan reformed its nuclear regulation structure, creating the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority. The new NRA then promulgated new safety standards that came into force exactly one year ago. All utilities must conform to them before they are allowed to go back online. The industry has been eagerly awaiting the first of these “restarts.”
Kyushu was among the first utilities to file for safety conformance checks for its Sendai and Genkai reactors when applications were accepted in July, 2013. In that month utilities sought safety reviews for 10 reactors. The list has subsequently climbed to 17, though few besides Sendai will likely get the go-ahead this year. Sendai is being treated as a kind of test case.
Shunichi Tanaka, the chairman of the NRA, took great pains to explain that his commission was not authorizing the re-start of any power plant, merely confirmed that they conform to the new safety guidelines. “It is for the utility, the local residents and the central government to make that decision,” he said.
Both the NRA and the central government, have been careful not to state flatly that the NRA approvals mean that the nuclear plants are “safe.” The industry was burned by its overly optimistic statements that “accidents cannot happen” before the Fukushima disaster, which destroyed its credibility, credibility it is now trying to restore.
The national government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, makes no secret that it believes that the county needs the energy provided by nuclear power plants for its economic growth strategy, although it has said that it will not push hard until the first safety conformance checks are completed.
Public opinion polls continue to show that a large majority, probably around 60 percent, oppose the notion in of bringing nuclear power plants back online. This is the case even in Kagoshima prefecture, home to the Sendai plants, although the local authorities are basically on the side of restarting the units.
Kyushu still has several hoops to go through until it bring the plants back online. Following the one-month public response, it will then have a two-month plant inspection. It needs also to obtain local approval. The governor of Kagoshima, Yuichiro Ito, defeated an anti-nuclear power candidate in the 2012 election and is considered favorable to a restart.
Anti-nuclear groups in Japan are expected to fight the Sendai restart furiously in hopes to toppling the industry/Abe government desire to rekindle nuclear power. In the wake of the NRA decision, Greenpeace Japan issued a statement criticizing the supposed deficiencies in the inspections.
Among other complaints, the NRA allegedly did not take into account the possibility of volcanic eruptions in the vicinity of the power plant. Sendai is about 50 km away from Mt. Sakurajima, an active volcano. ( Kyushu says it has put in place ash removal equipment.)
The anti-nuclear groups can be expected to use the courts, seeking injunctions that could tie things up for several years. It already scored something of a coup earlier this year when it persuaded a district court to block the restart of two other plants in Fukui prefecture. That will encourage them to bring more lawsuits.