Nuclear watchdog says two reactors in Kyushu safe to switch back on

Nuclear watchdog says two reactors in Kyushu safe to switch back on Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai nuclear plant at Satsumasendai city in Kagoshima Prefecture AFP

TOKYO —

Japan’s nuclear watchdog said Wednesday that two nuclear reactors in Kyushu were safe enough to switch back on, marking a major step toward restarting the country’s nuclear plants which were shuttered after the Fukushima crisis.

But fresh protests—and accusations that the regulator is a puppet of the powerful nuclear industry—have highlighted the challenges Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces in bringing back a technology that many Japanese have forever sworn off.

Abe has been trying to convince a wary public that the world’s third largest economy needs to return to an energy source which once supplied more than a quarter of its power.

Widespread anti-nuclear sentiment has simmered in Japan ever since an earthquake and tsunami more than three years ago caused a meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.

Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) officials on Wednesday issued a more than 400-page safety report on the Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, technically giving its operator the green light to switch on its reactors—the first since Japan ushered in tougher regulations last year.

But any restart is unlikely before autumn at earliest, following a month-long public consultation period and winning agreement from local communities.

Business groups have backed Abe’s push to bring nuclear power plants back online after Japan’s energy bills soared when it was forced to turn to pricey fossil fuels.

Some of the country’s utilities—including Sendai’s operator Kyushu Electric Power—have also received billions of yen in bailout money to rescue their finances which suffered when the plants went offline.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said Wednesday that the Sendai plant would have to operate under some of the toughest safety standards in the world.

“But it is often misunderstood when we talk about safety… we can never say there is zero risk,” he told reporters in Tokyo.

“We’ve said many times that we screened whether the (plant’s) safety measures satisfied the government standards, to lower the risk as much as possible.”

At a public meeting to finalise their decision, Tanaka and his colleagues were met with shouts of “shame on you!” from a small band of protesters, while demonstrators also gathered outside the Sendai plant.

“The NRA has yielded to the enormous pressure of the nuclear industry and the Abe government… instead of putting the safety of people first,” said Kazue Suzuki from Greenpeace Japan.

Following the meltdown at Fukushima, the country’s nuclear reactors were switched off. Two reactors were briefly restarted last year but all of Japan’s nuclear plants are currently offline.

Complicating matters, there was no clear roadmap on who would make the final decision to restart reactors, especially if there was strong local opposition.

“It’s a problem that the decision-making system is not clear,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a politics professor at Nihon University.

“Because no one wants to take responsibility for a controversial decision like this, probably the prime minister will make the final call.”

Still, Abe is facing opposition with one local assembly calling for the Sendai site to be decommissioned, while an anti-nuclear politician won a tight election at the weekend.

Former parliamentarian Taizo Mikazuki, 43, squeaked out a Sunday election win to become governor of Shiga Prefecture, beating a candidate backed by Abe’s ruling Liberal-Democratic Party.

The region borders on Fukui Prefecture, host to 13 idled reactors, and where the battle over nuclear power could see its biggest fight.

Mikazuki has demanded that Tokyo ask for his approval before any reactor restarts in neighboring Fukui.

Japan lies in one of the world’s most seismically active areas and is regularly hit by powerful earthquakes.

Worries about whether Japan’s nuclear plants could withstand another disaster came into focus at the weekend as an earthquake struck near the crippled Fukushima nuclear site.

No major damage was reported, but seismologists said the quake was an aftershock of the tremor that sparked 2011’s deadly tsunami, and warned of more to come.

© 2014 AFP

  • 6

    YongYang

    Prefectural Government: STEP UP.

  • 3

    UK9393

    No. The local people and the Prefectural Government won't allow it to start generating electricity. Shiga, Niigata, Fukushima et al are setting the benchmark. Plus, why do the media still refer to the melt throughs as down? The containment vessels were breached, corium masses secreted onto the concrete mats.

  • 5

    rickyvee

    within 5 years, all the reactors will be back online. it's a fait accompli as long as the LDP is in power.

  • 7

    Nessie

    Is this the same "watchdog" from which two experts resigned in protest recently?

  • 11

    Disillusioned

    This is the same 'watchdog' with hand picked LDP supporters. There was never any doubt that this 'new' handpicked team of "uhum" experts would OK the restart of all the reactors in Japan bar a few of the very old ones. The local prefectural council will be paid off to allow the restart and all will be behind closed doors. That's democracy Japan style!

  • -11

    Kazuaki Shimazaki

    I can see a lot of negative comments here. What people do not seem to get here is that it is a Nuclear Regulatory Agency - it is created with the premise that nuclear energy can be made sufficiently safe for use. It is not there to create an unwinnable game for nuclear power which seems to be what some wish it'd do.

  • 8

    BertieWooster

    Safe?

    Oh, that's OK, then.

    Put my mind at rest.

    Sort of.

  • 7

    johndpugh

    I guess this was it ,, 3 years is long enough for the public response to fade away after a major disaster. Nothing to see here anymore ,, lets move on ,, until the next disaster .

  • 12

    Farmboy

    What people do not seem to get here is that it is a Nuclear Regulatory Agency

    Kazuaki Shimazaki,

    The neutrality of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority has become a question recently. One of the people considered very strict about safety was not renewed, and the one of the replacements has done things that make people wonder how strict he will be.

    Here is a quote from a recent Japan Times article:

    “Bringing someone like (Tanaka) on as a regulator changes the fundamental role of the NRA,” said Tomoko Abe, an independent anti-nuclear lawmaker who is not related to the prime minister. “This nomination could undermine the very role of the regulator.”

    People know about the NRA, but not everyone now trusts the NRA.

  • -12

    theResident

    Let's hope TEPCO can get some of theirs turned back on soon and get our monthly bills down!

  • 10

    SenseNotSoCommon

    it is created with the premise that nuclear energy can be made sufficiently safe for use

    Thanks for the clarification of the role of the nuclear lapdog. That premise has been robustly tested by seismic forces.

    Nuclear energy poses absolutely no threat to shameless, all-consuming croneyism.

  • 10

    zichi

    There are only two reactors at the Sendai NPP. They are PWR reactors, the same type at Fukushima. One was commissioned in 1984 at a cost of ¥278 billion and the other was commissioned in 1985 at a cost of ¥228 billion.

    According to the safety guideline issued by the NRA, all NPP's are to have an offsite emergency control center but at the Sendai NPP there isn't one, and it will take until 2015 to build one and connect it to the plant. Following the nuclear disaster, the offsite emergency centre at Fukushima became unusable because of high radiation levels.

    http://www.nsr.go.jp/english/e_news/data/13/0912.pdf

    Many of the nuclear energy power utilities have been slow or recusant in updating the safety standards of their plants because the overall costs will be about ¥15 trillion or about one third of the profits locked into the current reactor fleet. In some instance, like at the TEPCO NPP in Niigata, TEPCO have said it couldn't retrofit venting to its reactors to remove hydrogen gas produced during a melt down, which caused the explosions at Fukushima.

    The restart of the Sendai reactors won't be in time for summer, since once all approvals are obtained, it'll take more than one month for a restart. Any restart will be in the autumn at the earliest.

    The local evacuation plans are also suppose to be updated.

    Kyushu power company has another 4 reactor NPP at Genkai with its ageing reactors, the oldest, No1 is now coming up to 40 years, and No2 34 years. No3&4 are about 20 years. Saga prefecture wants to decommission the reactors at 40 years.

    Seems strange the two Sendai reactors would be restarted at the same time, since at the end of their cycle, 13 months, both would be shut down for maintenance? That lasts for about 4 months.

    I think we are likely to see about, or at least 18-20 reactor restarts over the coming year but I don't think nuclear energy will ever return to its former level. On the day of the nuclear disaster there were 38 reactors operating generating about 27% of total power demand.

  • 3

    kurisupisu

    Let's turn nuclear reactors in earthquake riddled Japan -until the next nuclear disaster then.....

  • 5

    gogogo

    The new all pro-nuclear staffed "Nuclear watchdog" says it's safe.... hmmmmmmmmmmmm

  • 3

    NZ2011

    yup.. gogogo.. pretty much it.. The specially "re-selected" agenda filling members say it safe.. Not surprised.. The reality is the current government would rather gamble with earthquakes and other entirely unpredictable phenomena than actually do something about the thing they do have some control over, that being the economy.

  • 3

    zichi

    There are more than 1,000 staff working at the NRA, with about 400 experienced workers from the merger of the NRA and the previous JNES or Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organisation, which was completed on Mar.2014. https://www.nsr.go.jp/english/data/dai-ichi_NPS_handouts1.pdf

    In addition to the NRA chairman and four gov't appointed commissioners, there are also 10 executives. https://www.nsr.go.jp/english/e_nra/outline/04.html

    The decisions made by the NRA are not the sole responsibility of the chairman and his four commissioners. The Japanese model usually is by consensus.

  • 3

    kyushubill

    "The Japanese model usually is by consensus."

    Yeah and we all know how the Japanese get consensus: The nail that sticks out ...

  • 3

    Jeremy Rigby

    They're safe enough.. Fukushima was safe enough too! Kyshu is fault ridden and an Island with live volcano's. Are we to believe these reactors are equipped to survive when Fukushima didn't!

  • 4

    Frungy

    Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture

    ... Kagoshima... that would be the prefecture that boasts of an ACTIVE VOLCANO as one of its major tourist attractions?

    ... I have ceased being surprised at the greed and idiocy of humanity.

  • 0

    zorken

    than actually do something about the thing they do have some control over, that being the economy. You don't think the energy crisis and trade deficit have a role in controlling the economy then? I don't see why the NRA should be any less trustworthy than a lot of proshimins armed with megaphones (but rarely facts, or more importantly workable alternatives) pushing an anti-science agenda to populist politicians.

  • 5

    smithinjapan

    You have to love how here and in Sendai they are trying to win over the approval of locals, but we all know that if the locals say no, they'll just say, "Well... ummm... I know we absolutely promised that as a condition, but LEGALLY we don't need permission... soooo... ummm..." and they'll turn it on anyway. The NRA? Please! Many were hand-picked by Abe, and while I've applauded them on occasion they're STILL willing to allow NPPs to go back online before safety measures have been completed. They've PROMISED to complete them in the future, but want the NNPs online now. That simply is not safe, and one day we're going to see the same thing happen as in Fukushima, probably worse. Another sad day for Japan.

  • -2

    Mike O'Brien

    They are PWR reactors, the same type at Fukushima.

    The Sendai reactors are PWRs, but the Fukushima reactors were BWR's. They are NOT the same type

    and while I've applauded them on occasion they're STILL willing to allow NPPs to go back online before safety measures have been completed

    Yeah, when they do things you like they are great guys and experts, but when they make decisions you don't like they are pro-nuclear industry lapdogs.

    That simply is not safe

    Yeah the fact that the Sendai plants operated for almost 30 years safely without any upgrades means they are now simply not safe.

  • 2

    zichi

    smithinjapan

    You have to love how here and in Sendai they are trying to win over the approval of locals,

    The Sendai Nuclear Power Plant is a located in the city of Satsumasendai in Kagoshima Prefecture. There are about 100,000 residents in the area of the NPP. I'm commenting because some people will mistakenly think "Sendai" is "Sendai" in Miyagi.

    Approval of the local community, the local assembly, the prefecture assembly and the prefecture governor were previously sought but like you said the approval isn't required by law, but also like with the local opposition in Niigata, including the governor, will the central government override the disapproval? That would probably some public outrage and anger toward the central government.

    The NRA? Please! Many were hand-picked by Abe,

    We all know the NRA wasn't formed to stop or decommission the nuclear reactors. It was formed to issue new safety guidelines based on the experience of the nuclear disaster. Those are extensive and at least if put in place will increase the safety of the reactors. In the end if the reactors are to be restarted, at least those which are safer, which I think will be no more than 20 out of the current fleet of 48.

    PM Abe replaced to NRA commissioners who had reached the end of their term. Those two replacements also had to be approved by two thirds of the National Diet. PM Abe didn't appoint the 10 executives nor the thousand or so staff? I disagreed with the appointment of Satoru Tanaka, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tokyo, received the unknown amount of money from Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., operator of a nuclear fuel recycling program, and Mitsubishi FBR Systems Inc., a nuclear plant maker.

    I think the decision to restart any reactor or NPP will be taken by the central government and not the NRA

  • 2

    Mr. Perfect

    zorken Jul. 16, 2014 - 07:33PM JST

    I don't see why the NRA should be any less trustworthy than a lot of proshimins armed with megaphones (but rarely facts, or more importantly workable alternatives) pushing an anti-science agenda to populist politicians.

    (but rarely facts, or more importantly workable alternatives)

    So my friend, please detail the workable alternatives that Abe and his cronies in the LDP have put forth as many in this camp have said Japan should look to alternative energy sources to reduce Japan's dependance on nuclear power generation.

    I guess we pushing the so-called anti-science agenda to populist politicians get fed up with the self-professed pro-science agenda propagandists who continue to reassure us that Fukushima was much to do about nothing and just a fluke accident and a similar scenario could never be repeated except for the fact that the same reassurances were made following;

    March 1981 INES Level 2 Tsuruga Overexposure of workers June 1999 INES Level 2[3] Shika plant, Ishikawa Control rod malfunction Sept 1999 INES Level 4 Ibaraki Prefecture Accidental criticality March 2011 INES Level 7[14] Fukushima Daiichi Plant Multiple meltdowns, core breaches, explosions, radiation releases, cooling failures

    If we seem to lack faith in the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), it's with MANY damn good reasons and the fact that recently chosen members were specifically selected for their coinciding views with those of Abe really give us doubt in their ability to issue any recommendations that put safety above all else.. The Japanese nuclear energy community brought this mistrust upon themselves by not even implementing the most pressing safety measures because of cost considerations and their continued resistance to putting absolute safety above all else along with the less talked about neutrality issues with the NRA gives them about zero credibility.

  • 3

    garymalmgren

    Thanks Zichi

    You are a source of valuable information.

    I would be happier if the NRA made it clear to the nuclear industry and the public that some NPPs (ie Hamaoka) will never reach the safety standards set and therefore decommissioning should start.

    That would create more faith in the decision to restart other plants.

    However, with decommissioning comes the problem of effective waste disposal.

    The elephant in the room?

  • 2

    jerseyboy

    The region borders on Fukui Prefecture, host to 13 idled reactors, and where the battle over nuclear power could see its biggest fight.

    Insane. One prefecture is home to 13 reactors. Shows how willing to ignore any form of rational thought Japan Inc. was in its rush to pursue "cheap energy".

  • 2

    zichi

    garymalmgren

    I would be happier if the NRA made it clear to the nuclear industry and the public that some NPPs (i.e. Hamaoka) will never reach the safety standards set and therefore decommissioning should start.

    To some extend, the NRA have done that already by stating or at least hinting that in future after the inspections are completed, its unlikely more than 20 reactors will be restarted. Since the formation of the NRA it remains unclear if it has the authority to refuse a reactor restart or can only submit proposals to the central government?

    I would prefer to see a 100% independent NRA with the full authority to decide which reactors are restarted and which are not and also be able to issue substantial fines against any power utility violating the new safety standards.

    I don't think we can judge or really know about the intentions of the NRA until we see which reactors are restarted and what the safety inspection reports state. In the case of the Sendai NPP the report is 400 pages but who has read it?

    I would prefer no reactors were restarted but that isn't going to happen so then I prefer at least the safer ones are restarted, and all those reading 40 year life cycle are decommissioned along with any which can't be retrofitted or are located in dangerous places like Hamaoka.

    Chubu electric have spent ¥200 billion on a new massive sea wall and won't give up the fight to restart their reactors even with considerable local opposition. Last year, plant operators flooded the No5 reactor with sea water, which leads to corrosion and will need to be rebuilt.

    PM Abe seems to have made a clear statement on the future use of nuclear energy even though not all of those in his party or former prime ministers, agree with it. PM Abe hasn't made a clear statement on the future of renewable energy?

  • 0

    SenseNotSoCommon

    Yeah the fact that the Sendai plants operated for almost 30 years safely without any upgrades means they are now simply not safe.

    And Fukushima Daiichi operated since March 1971. Once bitten...

  • 0

    Patricia Yarrow

    Really good to see protesters out there. Now, everyone who can vote, please vote this rolling disaster called ABE and the LDP out of office. There is so much work to be done here in Japan, but these mostly old men are stopping everything that must happen for the future of Japan. NPPs have no business on this planet as we cannot and will never be able to figure out what to do with the overwhelming waste, much less keep plants safe for decades as most of them seem prone to graft and simple laziness. And, y'know, Japan is a terrifically seismic country. That alone should rule out nuclear power. Yet, here we stand, knee deep in consequences of Daichi/Fukushima npp. Turn them on? No, thank you!

  • 1

    Kabukilover

    If this is an Abe appointee or Abe certified, he isn't a watchdog but a lapdog. If you are living in Kyushu better get ready to pack your bags.

  • 1

    zichi

    Mike O'Brien

    You are correct and I was mistaken. The Sendai reactors are PWR and the ones at Fukushima BWR.

  • -3

    zorken

    So my friend, please detail the workable alternatives that Abe and his cronies in the LDP have put forth as many in this camp have said Japan should look to alternative energy sources to reduce Japan's dependance on nuclear power generation.

    Primarily deregulation of the energy markets - it should have a big effect in opening up renewable enterprise. His trip to Australia had some focus on renewable imports too. I'm no big fan of Abe - put the energy report's goal of baseline nuclear power + growing renewables makes the most compelling case for a sustainable future. I'd be delighted if I heard other plans to take away the need for nuclear - it's just that I haven't.

    I guess if people listened to all those pro-science propagandists Fukushima would never happen again. The science is sound - it's the incompetent people and companies that were left to run the power stations that are fault. They are the people that should be paying the price, not nuclear power itself.

  • 3

    boweevil

    'Japan's nuclear watchdog'... Try 'lapdog'.

  • 0

    gkamburoff

    No more nukes from Big Money and Big Power!

    Put the radioactive pollution in the headquarters of TEPCO.

    Have the managers clean up Fukushima, THEY caused it!!

  • 0

    Alex80

    Shame on Japan if they don't stop this. You can't ruin the world with your nukes.

  • 2

    Alex80

    @wtfjapan: I know it. Indeed I hate all that. Also, I believe the US are pushing Japan to keep nuclear power. But Japanese people must protest for their and world sake, before we have another Fukushima.

  • 3

    mukashiyokatta

    They are NOT safe to switch back on. Simple as that.

  • -3

    kiyoshiMukai

    Great. I love nuclear power. I love my air conditioner. Hope all of them are restarted

  • 3

    YongYang

    @Mike O'Brian: Not only were the destroyed reactors at Fukushima BWRs they were BWR Mark I, Mark I being the oldest and weakest in terms of 'containment'. Even before the Fukushima incident, Mark I containment had been criticized as being more likely to fail during a blackout... TEPCO. NRA. The Nuclear Village? DO. NOT. BELIEVE THEM.

  • -2

    toshiko

    Many USA states do not have Nuclear power plants. Refer Solar Power in USA in WikiPedia. If you want to know example of a state, Solar Power in Calif in WikiPedia as Calif. often have earthquakes (trembles -not like in Japan). I usually live in Nevada that has no nuclear powered utility company, but Calif is a good example. Uranium in USA? Isn't Mongolia the top Uranium supplier in the world?

  • -1

    Patricia Yarrow

    If they need to agreement of "the locals", what does this mean? Will the NRA simply find the smallest population possible and find out what it takes to bribe them into agreement? I would define locals as anyone who would be evacuating if the npp blows.

    Nuclear power plants are not safe and that is the end of the story. No one knows what to do with the waste even if everything goes swimmingly, which it won't.

  • -1

    Mr. Perfect

    Patricia Yarrow Jul. 17, 2014 - 06:58AM JST

    If they need to agreement of "the locals", what does this mean? Will the NRA simply find the smallest population possible and find out what it takes to bribe them into agreement? I would define locals as anyone who would be evacuating if the npp blows.

    I'm fairly sure that it means the blessing from the mayor/s of the village/s or cities the plant is operating in. Okinawa is a great example of how locally elected representatives flip 180 degrees, even when they were elected on a platform vowing to not allow events to happen, after meeting with Abe so something tells me the locals could theoretically be 100% against the restart but it all comes down to that meeting in Nagatacho and whether the sweet deal Abe presents to the mayor/s outweighs his or her political future.

  • 0

    SushiSake3

    Wah - ! 

    Could this be the same 'nuclear watchdog' packed with govt.-appointed pro-nuclear industry 'experts'?

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