In a decision that will set a precedent for Japan’s rapidly aging nuclear reactors, Kansai Electric Power Co. must soon choose whether to restart reactors 1 and 2 at its Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture and operate them beyond the 40-year threshold, the first time a Japanese utility has faced such a dilemma.

Under new government guidelines adopted in 2012, 40 years is the maximum limit, in principle, on how long the nation’s reactors are allowed to operate.

After that, they are supposed to be decommissioned, a process that can take decades. However, if a utility decides to continue to use them, it can apply for a one-time-only extension of 20 years if it meets a series of additional safety tests the government describes as “stringent.”

Currently, all of Japan’s 48 commercial reactors are idled. To apply for a two-decade extension on those now at or close age 40, their operators have to apply for special government inspections by no later than next July. These checks will be more expensive than the inspections currently being carried out on younger reactors.

Of Fukui’s 13 commercial reactors, 11 of which are operated by Kansai Electric, five are, or soon will be, at the 40-year limit. Another three are over 35 years old, and the utility will have to decide their fate in the next few years.

The two Takahama reactors went into operation in November 1974 and November 1975, with a capacity of 826,000 kilowatts each.

Earlier this month, Kansai Electric President Makoto Yagi said the utility would consider whether to decommission units based on whether they could still turn a profit if granted a 20-year extension. But Fukui politicians have cautioned the company to think about more than just the bottom line.

“What’s important is to think about plant operation and decommissioning at the same time. Local governments, as well as utilities, have to check the decommissioning process and this will require funding,” Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa said last month. “Where will midterm storage facilities be built? Where will a final storage facility for the spent fuel and nuclear waste be located? It’s necessary for the central government to be deeply involved.”

In September, Fukui Vice Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto warned Kansai Electric Vice President Shigeki Iwane that “if you’re going to discuss decommissioning, you won’t get anywhere unless you treat finding a midterm storage facility for the spent fuel, the problem of disposing of nuclear contaminated materials, and how decommissioning will impact the local economy as one set of issues.”

Decommissioning is of special concern to Fukui because it threatens the state subsidies that have been flowing into the prefecture for four decades. Between the 2007 and 2012 fiscal years, Fukui received at least ¥20 billion annually. From 1974 to 2012, prefectural data show Fukui received about ¥390 billion under three laws designed to reward local governments if they agreed to host nuclear plants.

Much of this has gone into roads, bridges, dams and other projects that keep the coffers of local construction companies full, provide employment for their workers as well as in local service industries, who then return the money via donations for local and national pro-nuclear lawmakers of the Liberal Democratic Party.

But while Kansai Electric, local governments in Fukui, the governor and major corporations in the region support both the restart of the prefecture’s newer reactors and, if possible, extending the Takahama units for another 20 years, at least one survey shows the rest of Kansai appears to be generally fine without nuclear power.

The Institute of Nuclear Safety System Inc., established and owned by Kansai Electric in Mihama, Fukui Prefecture, conducted a multiple choice survey last fall on how people in six Kansai prefectures and the southern part of Fukui felt about power generation, especially nuclear energy.

The results showed that, despite pressure from the pro-nuclear lobby for reactor restarts and higher electricity bills, 46 percent of the respondents felt either that atomic power should not be used or that other sources of electricity should be tapped. Although another 45 percent believed the use of nuclear energy was “inevitable,” only 8 percent replied it would be a “good” source of power.

In addition, the survey indicated that, despite Kansai Electric jacking up its power rates by 10 percent overall in spring 2013, not many of the respondents were overly concerned.

“The negative effects of the long-term suspension of nuclear power generation have not been recognized,” said institute official Atsuko Kitada.

Then there is a question the survey did not address: to what extent should the rest of Kansai be involved in decisions to restart or extend the operational life of the Fukui reactors.

Since the March 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, relations between Fukui and other Kansai prefectures that rely on its nuclear power plants have often been tense. Leaders in neighboring Kyoto and Shiga whose towns lie within a 30-km radius of the Fukui reactors want more of a say in their future. Anti-nuclear groups add that talk of extensions is underway even as the nation has yet to end the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

“It is particularly unconscionable for the Abe government to open the way for old reactors to operate when the Fukushima accident is ongoing,” said Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a Kyoto-based anti-nuclear lobby.

In October, Maizuru, a port city in Kyoto Prefecture that lies less than 10 km from the Takahama plant in Fukui, called for the definition of “local government consent” to be expanded to those municipalities within a 30-km radius of the facility since, by law, they have to draw up evacuation plans in case of a disaster. Around 144,000 people, including Maizuru’s 88,600 residents, live within 30 km of Takahama.

But Nishikawa rejects such calls.

“I recognize the definition of local consent as meaning Fukui Prefecture and the towns and villages that host the power plants,” he told reporters last month. “Since it’s been those areas closest to the nuclear plants that have borne the greatest risks over the past 40 or 50 years, there is a natural difference between them and other areas (outside Fukui).”

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.