Japan’s nuclear regulator signed off on the basic safety of a reactor at a third nuclear plant on Wednesday, as the country inches toward rebooting its atomic industry more than four years after the crisis began at Tepco’s Fukushima No.1 facility.
The decision will be a boost for operator Shikoku Electric Power Co., which relied on its sole Ikata nuclear power station in southwestern Japan for about 40 percent of its electricity output before the meltdowns at Fukushima led to the shutdown of all the country’s reactors.
But the reactor is not expected to go back online before winter, as Shikoku Electric has yet to obtain local approval and finish other necessary procedures.
For the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, resuming nuclear power, which provided about a third of the electricity supply before the triple meltdown in Fukushima, is key to lifting the economy out of two decades of anaemic growth.
Japan has switched to fossil fuels to compensate for the closure of reactors, pushing imports of liquefied natural gas to a record-high ¥7.78 trillion ($65 billion) in the financial year ended March 31.
The safety approval is still only one of three needed before the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) gives its final sign off. The consent of local authorities, which is seen as a formality, is also required, along with operational checks.
At a meeting on Wednesday, the NRA’s commissioners signed off on a provisional assessment that says the Ikata reactor meets new design standards introduced in the wake of Fukushima. The decision will be open to public comment for about a month before being formalized.
Located about 700 km (660 miles) west-southwest of Tokyo on Shikoku Island, the Ikata No. 3 reactor started operations in 1994 and has a capacity of 890 megawatts.
The future of the Ikata plant’s two other reactors, each with capacity of 566 megawatts, is unclear. One is almost 40 years old, which is the lifetime limit for reactors in Japan without a special extension that will be costly to achieve.
Shikoku Electric hasn’t applied for restarts of that reactor or the No. 2 unit, which began operations in 1982.
Two other nuclear plants operated by Kansai Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power have passed the first stage of regulatory checks.
Operators also have to overcome legal hurdles. Anti-nuclear activists have stepped up petitioning the judiciary to block restarts, with a majority of the public opposed to atomic power.
Residents near the Ikata plant filed a lawsuit in December 2011 to mothball the station, but a decision has yet to be made.
In a related move, the Fukui District Court has rejected Kansai Electric Power Co.’s appeal of a ruling that prevents the utility from restarting two reactors at its Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture, according to Tadashi Matsuda, a representative for the plaintiffs who won the case.
The court dismissal was decided Monday but not announced to the media. A court official declined to comment when contacted Tuesday. Kansai Electric representatives couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Fukui District Court issued an injunction in April preventing the utility from moving ahead with plans to restart the reactors.
The court said at the time that new safety regulations introduced following the Fukushima disaster of 2011 are still too lax to ensure the safety of the two reactors at the Takahama station.
Kansai Electric, the utility most dependent on nuclear power in Japan, had called the ruling unacceptable.
The rejected appeal throws yet another roadblock in the utility’s path to resuming operations at its nuclear plants.
The meltdowns at Tepco’s wrecked Fukushima No. 1 plant forced the country’s entire fleet of reactors offline in the months that followed, amid deepening public distrust of atomic energy.
The central government says the economy needs nuclear power — a technology that once supplied more than a quarter of Japan’s electricity — to meet its energy demand.