Japan on Monday restarted the procedures for allowing idled reactors to be brought back online, putting in place new safety regulations that reflect the lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 meltdown disaster.
Power utilities rushed to the Nuclear Regulation Authority to apply for safety assessments on 10 reactors in hopes of cutting their fuel costs, which have soared since the loss of atomic power forced them to revert to thermal power generation.
But none of the reactors is likely to be restarted anytime soon because it could take at least six months for each assessment to finish.
Facing what the NRA calls the world’s toughest level of nuclear regulations, utilities may also opt to give up efforts to restart some of the other 50 commercial reactors and scrap them instead of investing in costly safety upgrades.
Four regional utilities filed Monday morning to restart the 10 reactors, which are situated at five nuclear power plants in Hokkaido, Fukui, Ehime and Kagoshima prefectures.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. has expressed plans to request an NRA safety review for two reactors at its giant seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex in Niigata Prefecture, but local opposition made it difficult for the utility to apply Monday.
Under the new standards, utilities will for the first time be obliged to install specific countermeasures for major contingencies ranging from core meltdowns to tsunami — the direct cause of the Fukushima crisis.
Among those applying for restarts, reactors that could precede others include unit 3 at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, which has been found not to have geologic faults that need to be checked and has already prepared a newly required seismic-isolated emergency response center.
Reactors must also have a venting system with filters that can reduce the amount of radioactive substances when pressure needs to be vented from reactor containers during emergencies, but pressurized water reactors like unit 3 at the Ikata plant are given a five-year moratorium to meet the requirement.
“We believe the reactor satisfies the state’s standards,” an official from Shikoku Electric Power told reporters after submitting an application to the NRA, at the same time calling on regulators to conduct a “scientific, rational and efficient” safety assessment.
But prospects appear bleak for aging units that will not only have to satisfy the new regulations but also undergo special inspections to continue to operate beyond 40 years.
The existence of active faults running beneath atomic plants could also be a critical factor that will result in the permanent shutdown of reactors.
Some residents living near nuclear power plants have expressed hope about the economic benefits when they come back online, while others are wary about the dangers.
Masumi Shibuta, 54, who runs an inn often used by workers at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s Tomari plant, was relieved at the start of the process for reactivating the complex, saying, “Finally, we are starting to see a bright sign.”
But Hideko Hayashi, 81, who is now an evacuee after fleeing the town of Futaba where the Fukushima No. 1 plant is located, said, “No matter how strict the standards may be, an accident could occur. Having standards for restarting reactors is outrageous.”