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Responsibility for reactor restarts a hot potato

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The impending reactivation of reactors shut down following the 2011 nuclear crisis has raised a difficult question: Who will take responsibility for the decision?

On Wednesday, the Nuclear Regulation Authority effectively finished screening the two reactors at the Sendai plant in Kyushu, certifying they meet the new safety standards adopted after the Fukushima meltdowns.

Once they go online, likely in the fall, they will be the only reactors in operation in the nation.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, however, is quick to point out that it’s not up to his commission to decide whether to restart any of the nation’s 48 commercial reactors.

“We won’t commit ourselves to making a decision on whether to restart (one) or not,” Tanaka said. “It is the utility, local residents and the central government” that make the decision, Tanaka said.

It’s not even the NRA’s job to say whether a reactor is safe, Tanaka insists.

He says the NRA’s sole duty is to determine whether the reactors meet the new safety standards.

This is not how Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sees things.

“We will leave the judgment to the NRA’s expertise as far as safety is concerned,” Suga told a news conference Wednesday.

From a legal standpoint, Suga said, it is the power company’s responsibility to decide whether to reactivate a reactor that has passed the NRA’s inspection.

Even after 3/11, the law remains unchanged on that point.

“We won’t make any political decision” to reactivate a reactor, and just follow the legal procedures, Suga added, opening the door to the eventual restart of all the other idled reactors that pass the NRA tests.

Every atomic utility is desperate to bring its reactors back online. The costs of importing fuel for thermal power are growing, exacerbated by the weakened yen, while the reactors they invested so much in to build, maintain and improve generate only losses.

On the surface at least, top government officials are trying to distance themselves from the restart process. But they won’t hide their enthusiasm for immediate reactivation once a reactor gets the NRA’s blessing.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emphasized Japan is losing as much as ¥4 trillion a year importing additional fuel to make up for the idling of the nuclear plants.

“For businesses to operate (in Japan), stable energy supplies are needed. And costs should be low, too,” Suga told the news conference.

“We’d like to promote the reactivation (of the plants) if the NRA conducts scientific and technological evaluations and it is concluded (they are) safe,” Abe told reporters Wednesday.

Sendai plant operator Kyushu Electric Power Co. is now ready to reactivate the reactors in the fall — with the consent of the heads of local governments, including Kagoshima Gov. Yuichiro Ito.

Though not required by law to get this consent, it’s a practical necessity.

According to an April 11 to 13 telephone poll by the local daily Minami-Nippon Shimbun, 59.5 percent of 1,016 respondents in Kagoshima Prefecture said they are opposed to reactivating the Sendai reactors, while 36.8 percent support the plan.