SATSUMASENDAI, Kagoshima Pref. – Kyushu Electric Power Co. said Monday it will restart the No. 1 reactor at its Sendai nuclear plant on Tuesday, marking the country’s first long-term return to nuclear power since the Fukushima crisis.
The reactor, in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, will be the first to go live under new safety standards that were put in place in 2013. The standards were drawn up after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in March 2011.
The restart, strongly pushed by the pro-business administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, will deal a tough blow to anti-nuclear activists and citizens who have been calling for abolition of all nuclear power plants.
Advocates of the restart include the prefectural government as well as residents of Satsumasendai who appreciate the impact of nuclear-power related subsidies on public works projects and the effect the plant has on local service industries.
Meanwhile, the Abe Cabinet risks losing popularity among voters. A poll by the Mainichi Shimbun on Saturday and Sunday found that 57 percent of people are opposed to reactivating the Sendai plant, while 30 percent support it. The survey polled 1,015 respondents nationwide.
Abe has maintained that utility companies, not the central government, should decide whether to restart reactors if the Nuclear Regulation Authority declares them safe under new inspection standards.
But at the same time his administration has been promoting the reactivation of suspended commercial reactors, citing the huge cost of importing fossil fuels for thermal power plants.
Tuesday’s restart would come despite local worries that Kyushu Electric Power and local politicians and businesses have been pushing for it without addressing what would happen in the event of an emergency.
A protest rally in front of the plant Monday drew former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was in office at the time of the events of March 11, 2011.
With the exception of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi No. 3 and 4 reactors in Fukui Prefecture, which were restarted in summer 2012 under the old safety measures and ran until early autumn 2013, all of Japan’s 43 remaining operable nuclear reactors have been shut down since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent meltdowns in Fukushima.
“Like Tepco and Fukushima at that time, Kyushu Electric will not take responsibility for evacuation in case of an emergency,” Kan told the rally. “Under current laws, neither Tepco nor Kyushu Electric have responsibility to ensure the safety of residents.”
Local governments hosting nuclear plants are required to draw up evacuation plans for those living within 30 km of the site.
But nuclear plants like Sendai are often located in isolated areas along a coast, where access roads are sometimes few and where many local residents are elderly and would require special care and assistance.
“The plans Kagoshima Prefecture has drawn up are unrealistic,” said Katsuhiro Inoue, a member of the Satsumasendai Municipal Assembly from the Japan Communist Party.
“They assume the main access road closest to the plant will be usable in the event of accident, and they don’t answer basic questions of how long it might take to move those who are elderly outside the 30-km radius of the plant, or what might happen to people who live more than 30 km away and try to evacuate,” Inoue said.
In May 2014, the prefecture calculated how long it would take to evacuate the nearly 215,000 people who live in Satsumasendai and nine other towns within 30 km of the plant.
In the best case scenario, officials estimated it would take almost 10 hours to evacuate 90 percent of the population.
In the worst case, the prefecture concluded, it could take almost 29 hours.