Utility could fire up reactors despite legal block

Kepco could defy courts and restart Oi reactors despite legal block

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Last week’s ruling by the Fukui District Court blocking the restart of two reactors at the Oi power plant in Fukui Prefecture continues to create controversy, with operator Kansai Electric Power Co. saying it may defy the decision and fire up the reactors if three conditions are met even as safety concerns mount.

“We’ve appealed the verdict, which means the ruling is not yet confirmed. Our thinking hasn’t changed about restarting the reactors as soon as their safety has been confirmed,” Kepco President Makoto Yagi said Tuesday.

Kepco has appealed to the Kanazawa branch of the Nagoya High Court. A decision could take two or three years. After that, depending on the verdict, it could be appealed to the Supreme Court, adding more years before a final decision is reached.

In addition to getting the green light from the Nuclear Regulation Authority on safety issues, Yagi said that central and local permission would also be conditions for restarting the reactors. The pro-nuclear administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to grant approval quickly.

But getting local consent could now be much trickier. Traditionally, that was something of a formality, involving little more than a statement by municipalities in Fukui Prefecture that host nuclear plants and the governor, all of whom are pro-nuclear.

Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis of 2011, however, political leaders in towns and villages, particularly in adjacent Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, have become more vocal in demanding a say in whether Fukui’s atomic plants are safe to restart.

In the event of an accident at one of them, the port city of Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, which is located just a few kilometers from the Fukui border and is home to a Maritime Self-Defense Forces base, might become the front line evacuation and rescue center for those fleeing Fukui.

In a worst-case scenario, Maizuru itself would need to be evacuated, as much of the city’s population of nearly 89,000 lives within 30 km of the Oi nuclear facility.

But cooperation between Fukui, the central government and Kansai-area leaders on developing a regional response to a nuclear accident in Fukui has long been difficult. That has increased concerns among local politicians that pressure by Abe, Kepco and pro-nuclear Fukui politicians on the NRA to approve restarts will ignore Maizuru’s concerns, drawing a response from the city’s mayor.

“We need a safety check involving experts selected by Maizuru and Kyoto Prefecture,” Maizuru Mayor Ryozo Tatami told reporters on Tuesday.

If upheld by the higher courts, the Fukui decision will be a landmark case that greatly expands the number of localities nuclear power advocates will have to consider when formulating local safety procedures. The ruling said residents living within 250 km of the Oi facility are entitled to seek an injunction against restarting the reactors.

The NRA is considering restarting them under the new rules, but Kepco has already warned that the Kansai region will face the summer without electricity from the No. 3 and 4 reactors at Oi.

The Abe administration, which is pushing hard to restart some idled reactors as soon possible, is backing the appointment of new experts to the NRA that it feels will be more cooperative than some current commissioners.

One of the strictest commissioners has been Kunihiko Shimazaki, 68, whose criticism of earthquake safety measures has earned him the wrath of pro-nuclear politicians, utilities and business lobbies.

Shimazaki’s term ends in September. Abe hopes to replace him with University of Tokyo professor Satoru Tanaka, 64, who is on record as favoring nuclear power past 2030, when only five of Japan’s 50 remaining reactors would be less than 30 years old.