Assurances Friday by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and key ministers that two idled reactors are safe to restart has drawn fire from the public that the government is moving way too quickly to bring atomic power plants back online, given the disastrous meltdowns last year at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
The safety declaration for the two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s power plant in the town of Oi in Fukui Prefecture was issued after Noda and three ministers scrambled to cobble together extra safety standards for the reactors in just three days. The quartet then simply announced the reactors had cleared the new criteria just a week later — on the same day that a suspected North Korean missile was launched.
That sequence of events has raised skepticism that the Noda administration may be rushing to fire up Oi’s reactors by May 5, when the only reactor still up and running will be closed for a mandatory checkup.
The reactors in question, units 3 and 4, were idled for routine checkups and sit on the coast of the Sea of Japan, looking over Wakasa Bay. To the southeast, in adjacent Shiga Prefecture, is Lake Biwa, a major source of drinking water for western Japan.
But some of the government-approved safety measures Kepco promised will take years to complete. This includes the installation of filtered venting equipment in the reactors to suppress the escape of radioactive material into the atmosphere when acting to prevent explosions. The Oi facility currently lacks such venting facilities but has a different design that apparently gives it a greater capacity to avoid such an emergency.
“I can’t help but feel that they are moving toward a conclusion that has already been set,” former nuclear power plant engineer Masashi Goto said angrily.
“Is it OK to put off safety measures on nuclear power? Earthquakes and tsunami will not wait for us,” the adviser warned.
Goto is a member of a panel that is advising the nuclear safety agency on reactor stress tests.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida also criticized the decision as presumptuous, given the fact that the hazardous events that transpired at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant disaster haven’t even been verified yet.
“I have serious concerns that they are taking steps toward the reactivation in a quick manner,” he said.
Kansai Electric President Makoto Yagi has said measures have been taken to prevent a repetition of the Fukushima crisis and the venting equipment is being installed “just in case.”
Since the Fukushima No. 1 crisis began in March 2011, spurring radiation leaks and mass evacuations, none of the nation’s 54 commercial reactors has resumed operation after being shut down for routine checks.
Under the two-stage stress test introduced last July, reactors idled for the mandatory checks are required to pass the first stage before resuming operation.
Among the dozens of reactors idled, those at the Oi plant are the first being considered for restart after their first-stage test results were endorsed by nuclear authorities.
The widespread and prolonged halt of commercial reactors has raised fears of electricity shortages and economic damage near the suspended plants.
Some business leaders, such as Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura, welcomed the ministers’ decision.
If no reactors go online and demand for electricity remains the same as in 2010, when the nation endured its hottest summer ever, the areas covered by Kansai Electric, including Osaka, are expected to face a power shortage of up to 18.4 percent during peak demand in August, according to government calculations based on Kepco’s data.
However, some observers doubt whether the power supply will really be in danger without nuclear power. They also doubt that all possible power conservation measures have even been taken yet.
“I think the utility can boost its supply capacity a little more,” said Takumi Fujinami, senior researcher on environmental policies at the Japan Research Institute. He said Kepco can help itself by making use of its pumped-up storage hydropower stations and borrow power from other utilities.
Trade minister Yukio Edano admitted at a press conference after announcing the decision to seek the restart of Oi’s reactors that the public has lost faith in Japan’s gung-ho nuclear policy since the Fukushima crisis.
“After an accident that was not supposed to occur happened on March 11 last year, I do not think citizens will trust the government so easily,” Edano said. “Knowing that, we have to do our best to win people’s understanding.”