Two Tepco reactors were cleared for restarts by the government’s nuclear watchdog on Wednesday, becoming the first run by the operator of the crippled Fukushima power plant to formally pass stricter safety standards imposed after the 2011 crisis.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority on Wednesday endorsed safety measures for the Nos. 6 and 7 reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power station in Niigata Prefecture. The move was announced at a meeting that was open to the public, with some members of the audience shouting their disapproval.
Despite Wednesday’s development, the process of reactivating the reactors straddling the municipalities of Kashiwazaki and Kariwa in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast could still take several more years as local governments need to give their consent.
Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, who has said it will take “at least three to four years” before he can decide on whether to approve the restart of the reactors, issued a statement saying he wants to be briefed on the plan and “examine the outcome of the review.”
The two units are boiling-water reactors, the same as those that suffered meltdowns in the Fukushima crisis caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. No such reactor types had previously cleared the nation’s tougher safety standards introduced after the disaster, partly because major refurbishment is required to meet the new regulations.
The watchdog’s approval of the two units brings the total number of reactors that have cleared the post-crisis safety regulations to 14, with the government pushing to restart nuclear plants that were taken offline after the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 complex, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
In addition to assessing technical requirements, the review by the NRA focused on whether Tepco is qualified to operate a nuclear power plant as it struggles with the scrapping of the Fukushima No. 1 complex — an effort expected to take until around 2051 — and in dealing with contaminated water around the crippled plant where radiation levels remain high.
Of around 800 public comments received by the regulator regarding its assessment of the Tepco reactors, about half questioned Tepco’s qualification to run nuclear plants.
At Wednesday’s meeting, some members of the public voiced opposition, with one person saying, “It is not a technical or scientific assessment, but a political one.”
In front of the building housing the NRA in Tokyo, civic group members gathered to protest the approval.
“Tepco has no technical qualifications to run a nuclear power plant after causing such an accident,” said Yoshinari Usui, a former public official from Kawasaki. “The restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa units is totally unacceptable.”
Han Kumata, a 37-year-old from Tokyo, said, “I have absolutely no trust in Tepco even if it says it has implemented safety measures.”
As a condition for gaining safety clearance, Tepco agreed to a request from the regulator to provide a safety pledge in its legally binding plant operation program.
The NRA says it can continue to monitor Tepco by conducting inspections and order the halt of operations if it finds any safety violations.
Facing huge compensation payments and other costs stemming from the Fukushima crisis, Tepco has been trying to resume operation of its reactors to reduce dependence on costly fossil fuel imports for non-nuclear thermal power generation.
In Niigata, not all residents oppose nuclear power, given its economic benefits.
“There may be risks, but the local (municipality) cannot stand without nuclear power. I want the reactors to be restarted if they have been deemed safe,” said Kashiwazaki resident Toru Murata, who works in the construction industry.
But Mie Kuwabara, a 69-year-old resident of the city of Niigata, expressed concern about the reactors coming back online, saying, “I think the possibility of a serious accident still remains,” considering past problems at the plant — including insufficient quake resistance of a building to be used as an emergency headquarters.
The two reactors are the newest among the seven units at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility. The complex is one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, with a combined output capacity of 8.2 million kilowatts.
Tepco filed for safety assessments of the two reactors in September 2013.