Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s invitation to the world’s top nuclear agency to review the safety of its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility signals the utility’s desire to win international backing to resume operations at the world’s largest atomic power plant.
Kashiwazaki is Tepco’s best bet of returning to nuclear power generation, after the plant was shuttered along with the rest of Japan’s nuclear capacity following the unprecedented meltdowns at the company’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011.
Firing up its reactors would boost Tepco’s profit by as much as ¥32 billion a month, according to Tepco spokesman Tatsuhiro Yamagishi.
“They want a foreign seal of approval,” said Robert Dujarric, a director at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies of Temple University in Tokyo. “No one trusts what Tepco says. The only way they can convince Japanese residents that this is not risky is to get a foreign institution to certify them being acceptable.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency began its 11-day evaluation on Tuesday and will report its findings to Japan’s watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which has the final say on a plant’s safety. A restart would still need local government approval, which presents difficulties as the region’s governor remains a vociferous critic of Tepco.
Tepco expects to spend at least ¥270 billion to bring Kashiwazaki back online, although it says the cost is a secondary consideration. What is needed and what the IAEA brings is the “knowledge, ingenuity, and engineering capabilities to get there,” Takafumi Anegawa, Tepco’s chief nuclear officer, told a news conference at the plant on Tuesday. “Randomly spending money doesn’t assure safety.”
The NRA has visited Kashiwazaki three times since agreeing to check its reactors in 2013, although it has not given a timeline for approval, according to Tepco’s Yamagishi. NRA spokesman Taro Komine declined to comment on Kashiwazaki and the IAEA’s safety study there.
The IAEA was created in 1957 and one of its goals is to promote the safe use of nuclear energy. Tepco, meanwhile, is struggling to convince the Japanese public of improvements in its attitudes to safety amid worker deaths and irradiated water leaks at the ruined Fukushima plant.
“Of course Tepco would like them to come online,” Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Tokyo-based energy consultant Mathyos, said by email. However, “I have normally categorized it as a plant that is extremely unlikely to come online. There is huge local opposition.”
Hirohiko Izumida, three-term governor of Niigata Prefecture where the plant is located, has said restarting Kashiwazaki shouldn’t even be considered until Tepco’s safety record and handling of Fukushima are properly reviewed.
Niigata Prefecture spokesman Kenji Kiuchi declined to comment on the governor’s opinion of the IAEA review.
Restarting Kashiwazaki would boost Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan for nuclear energy to account for as much as 22 percent of the country’s total electricity supply by 2030.
Thus far, Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai reactors are the only ones to pass the NRA’s safety requirements and clear local courts. Kyushu is aiming to restart the two units this year. While the NRA judged two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama station as safe, legal hurdles have since obstructed any restart.
Tepco is seeking to restore two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki, which is located about 220 km northwest of Tokyo on coast of the Sea of Japan. Its only other nuclear plants are Fukushima No. 1, which is being decommissioned, and the nearby Fukushima No. 2 facility, which may be too tainted by its association with the 2011 disaster to ever restart.
In order to ensure Kashizawaki’s safety, Tepco says it has bolstered staff levels, built a 15 meter flood-prevention wall, and built a reservoir to store 20,000 tons of water to cool reactors in case of pump failures.
The IAEA said its primary focus will be assessing the plant’s internal operations. Three months after its review, the agency will send its report to Tepco, the NRA and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The review will not replace Japan’s regulatory process, said Peter Tarren, the IAEA’s team leader at Kashiwazaki. “Decisions about restarts of the plant are not the authority of the IAEA,” he said.