Sendai – A nuclear reactor in Miyagi Prefecture damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011 has cleared the last hurdle to resume operations, getting the green light Wednesday from local officials.
The No. 2 unit of Tohoku Electric Power Co.'s Onagawa plant is the first of the reactors damaged in the disaster to win final approval with local consent to restart.
Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai and the mayors of Onagawa and Ishinomaki, the two municipalities that host the unit, gave their consent at a meeting after the plant cleared national safety screening in February.
"There is an excellent, stable supply of electricity in a nuclear plant, and the plant can also contribute to the local economy," Murai said during a news conference after the meeting in Ishinomaki.
A Tohoku Electric official said the utility will "continue to do its best to ensure safety" in plant operations.
Tohoku Electric says it plans to restart the No. 2 reactor in fiscal 2022 at the earliest after work on safety and disaster prevention measures is completed, such as the construction of an 800-meter-long seawall at the plant.
The Onagawa plant is the closest nuclear plant to the epicenter of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck nine years ago.
The central government has been pushing for the reactor to be reactivated so as to ensure a stable power supply, with trade minister Hiroshi Kajiyama seeking Murai's consent in March.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said during a news conference that gaining local consent marks an "important" step.
The municipal assemblies for Onagawa and Ishinomaki had already given their consent, as had the prefectural assembly. On Monday, the leaders of most of Miyagi's 35 municipalities agreed at a meeting to support the decisions of Onagawa and Ishinomaki.
Part of the reason for local approval is the money generated by hosting the reactor, with Onagawa having received from the central government around ¥27 billion ($256 million) in grants in the past, as well as hefty property taxes from Tohoku Electric.
Masanori Takahashi, chairman of the town's chamber of commerce lobbying local leaders to support the restart, said, "We are getting closer to the end of disaster-linked infrastructure development projects," adding it is now "absolutely necessary to restart the reactor to get the town's economy going."
Some local residents, however, believe the approval was rushed, saying concerns linger over whether evacuation plans can actually be implemented in the event of a nuclear accident.
The 825,000-kilowatt boiling water reactor won approval to restart from the Nuclear Regulation Authority earlier this year, becoming the second disaster-damaged reactor to pass stricter safety standards put in place after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
A massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, triggering one of the worst nuclear disasters since the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Fukushima Prefecture, which is adjacent to Miyagi.
At one point, the disaster caused all of Japan's 54 reactors to be brought to a halt. So far, nine units at five plants in the country have restarted following regulatory and local approval.
At the Onagawa complex, all three reactors — the same boiling water reactors as were used at the Fukushima No. 1 plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. — shut down but the underground floors of the No. 2 unit were flooded, after the facility was hit by a tsunami of up to 13 meters.
In Onagawa, more than 800 people were listed as killed or missing.
As the plant's emergency cooling system functioned normally, there was no meltdown of the type that occurred at three of the six reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
The utility has decided to decommission the reactor's No. 1 unit, and is considering whether to request a review by the authority to restart the No. 3 unit.
Other boiling water reactors at sites including the Tokai No. 2 plant of Japan Atomic Power Co. in Ibaraki Prefecture have also won the regulator's approval to resume operations, but have yet to obtain local consent.
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