Abe’s government, which reversed the previous government’s policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2030, has set no timetable for restarting nuclear plants, saying that the process is in the hands of a tough, more independent safety regulator set up after Fukushima.
Some power companies have business plans that assume restarts by this summer, but — with the possible exception of two reactors in southern Japan — that looks highly unrealistic, as the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) says the utilities are not taking the process seriously enough.
Eight power companies have requested safety inspections to allow the restart of 17 reactors at 10 power stations. The NRA has fast-tracked two reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, after operator Kyushu Electric broke ranks with its peers and said it would provision for far greater seismic shocks to the plant.
Three other reactors in southern Japan are considered next in line, among 11 pressurized-water reactors at five plants run by Shikoku Electric, Kansai Electric and Hokkaido Electric being vetted by the regulator.
“I think the government is incredibly clever by doing the restarts in the most modern, advanced places that have the most local support and are yet far from centres of political activity... Then you use that to create momentum for the agenda of restarting as many reactors as possible,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.
Even after the NRA says a reactor is safe to restart, the central government will defer to local areas for the final decision. Some of the front-runners have local governments strongly behind nuclear power and the wealth it brings to communities through jobs and state subsidies.
Other communities may balk at disaster preparedness. A survey of 134 mayors of towns and villages near reactors by the Asahi Shimbun found that 10 of the country’s 16 nuclear plants do not have evacuation plans covering a 30km radius — the size of the Fukushima exclusion zone.
Some reactors can essentially be ruled out, like TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ni nuclear power plant, which is well within the Dai-ichi plant evacuation zone and faces near-universal opposition from a traumatized local population. Also highly unlikely to switch back on is Japan Atomic Power Co’s Tsuruga plant west of Tokyo, which experts commissioned by the NRA say sits on an active fault.
Twelve reactors will reach or exceed the standard life expectancy of 40 years within the next five years, probably sealing their fate in the new, harsher regulatory climate, including Reactor No. 1 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata power station — the outlook is less clear for about one-third of the other 48 reactors.
TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant on the coast north of Tokyo — the world’s biggest nuclear station by output capacity — faces a politically fraught process. Although two of its seven reactors look likely to be allowed to restart on technical grounds, the head of Niigata Prefecture where the plant is located has accused the operator of “institutionalised lying” and says TEPCO cannot be trusted to operate another facility.