Japanese nuclear operators yesterday applied to restart reactors under new rules drawn up following the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, but early approval is unlikely as a more independent regulator strives to show a skeptical public it is serious about safety.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the utilities are keen to get reactors running again, with Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe singling out reining in soaring fuel costs as a key part of his economic reform plans.
However, the pro-nuclear LDP must tread carefully to avoid compromising the independence of the new regulator, which is battling to build credibility with a public whose faith in nuclear power was decimated after meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima Dai-ichi station.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has said it would take at least six months to review nuclear units, following which the consent of communities hosting reactors is needed.
All but two of Japan’s 50 reactors have been closed in the wake of the disaster in March 2011, which forced 160,000 people from their homes, many of whom are unlikely to be able return for decades.
Nuclear power accounted for about a third of Japan’s electricity supply before the Fukushima catastrophe, the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
The disaster, caused by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power and cooling functions at the Fukushima plant, highlighted lax oversight of the powerful electricity companies.
Polls show a majority of Japan’s population want to end reliance on atomic power and are opposed to restarts, but the ruling party argues nuclear energy will cut fuel costs that have pushed the country into a record trade deficit and will help return loss-making utilities to profit.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co, Kansai Electric Power, Shikoku Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power applied to get 10 reactors restarted, the NRA said.
Shunichi Tanaka, the chairman of the NRA, said on Thursday last week that elevating safety culture to international standards would “take a long time.”
The regulator has said that reviewing each plant would likely take six months and that its review of Japan’s nuclear fleet may take more than three years in total.
The difficulty they may face in getting that approval was highlighted as Tokyo Electric held back from applying to get units started at its Kashiwazaki Kariwa facility after local authorities rebuffed the company’s plans.
Equipment upgrades that reactors need to comply with the new rules may cost the industry as much as US$12 billion, according to one estimate.
The NRA will simultaneously review similar model units at the same plants. About 80 staff at the regulator have been divided into three groups for the safety checks, with another group overseeing earthquake resistance.