Tokyo Electric Power Co. is considering asking a U.S. utility to verify safety at its idled Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, a senior foreign adviser to the beleaguered utility has said.
It would be the first time a foreign power company has been asked to assess a Japanese nuclear plant.
In Japan only the Nuclear Regulation Authority can check that reactors meet national safety standards. However, an opinion from an “experienced operator” would help Tepco, given the public scrutiny it faces, said Dale Klein, chairman of the company’s reform monitoring committee.
Tepco operates the devastated Fukushima No. 1 plant, where stabilization and cleanup work is far from complete more than three years after the accident.
Built in Niigata Prefecture, Kashiwazaki is the world’s largest nuclear plant. It was damaged by fire in a 2007 earthquake.
Tepco brought in Klein, the former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as a safety adviser amid blistering criticism of the utility’s response to the Fukushima crisis. The events of March 2011 led to the shutdown of all Japan’s reactors for safety checks — the dissolution of the old regulator and the creation of the NRA.
Tepco managers are now inculcating a new safety culture across all levels of workers, Klein said.
“They recognize that they need to be doubly safe and doubly verified,” Klein said Tuesday in an interview in Tepco’s Tokyo office, adding that management had a “positive” response after Klein and others suggested the idea of safety verifications from a non-Japanese utility.
“We are positively considering (whether) to respond to the suggestion,” Tepco spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida said Wednesday by phone.
Japan’s utilities edged closer to restarting reactors this week when local authorities of a town nearest to the Sendai power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture voted to allow the plant to resume operation. The NRA earlier declared the plant had cleared safety checks.
Klein said restarting Sendai will require additional local approval, but it would nevertheless be a “milestone” that maps the decision-making process others can follow. The plant is operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co.
Tepco’s Kashiwazaki plant should now be considered for restart, he said.
“They have gone through and added back-up systems to back-up systems to back-up systems,” Klein said, citing a site visit.
Tepco has invited foreign companies from the U.S., France, Russia and elsewhere to help in some aspects of the Fukushima cleanup work, and the utility has hired foreign advisers such as Klein. As a rule, however, all nuclear safety inspections are carried out using domestic institutions.
Even the International Atomic Energy Agency has limited power to inspect atomic facilities worldwide and says it is not a nuclear safety regulator. That role is the responsibility of each country; the agency can only give recommendations, it has said.
An outside assessor of Kashiwazaki should not be seen as undercutting the NRA’s authority, Klein said. The foreign utility would need to have experience operating boiling water reactors and “there are several” candidates that may be considered in the U.S., he said.
Such an assessment could be completed in a year, meaning Kashiwazaki could be approved to begin operations by the end of 2015, Klein said, noting that the pace would depend on the NRA.
Klein said Kashiwazaki’s restart in Niigata prefecture and the cleanup and decommissioning at Fukushima should be considered separately, even though Tepco owns both.
However, opinion polls show the majority of people in Japan remain opposed to restarting nuclear reactors. Niigata Governor Hirohiko Izumida is among them.
“The Fukushima accident has not been thoroughly investigated and completely reviewed yet, so the idea of setting up new nuclear safety standards on that basis is questionable,” Izumida told a press conference in Tokyo on Oct. 21.
Izumida, who would need to approve a reactor restart in his jurisdiction, was governor of Niigata during the earthquake of 2007 that resulted in the fire at Kashiwazaki and a loss of communications with the plant.
Niigata prefecture also borders Fukushima prefecture and took in some residents displaced by the 2011 disaster, so he said he is familiar with the consequences of safety failures at nuclear power plants.
“The first step is to have a complete evaluation of what happened in the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident and where responsibilities lie,” he said. “Until then we can’t be discussing restarting nuclear plants.”