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On Nov. 11, Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai gave the green light to restarting the No. 2 reactor at Tohoku Electric Power Co’s Onagawa nuclear power plant. While the reactor is not expected to begin generating power until construction to improve the plant’s safety is completed, the governor's approval paves the way for the first reactor damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake to resume operation.

The restart, the first in northeastern Japan, comes amidst controversial restarts in the country's west following the quake and at a time when the energy source's future economic and political feasibility is being debated after the government announced a target of Japan being carbon neutral by 2050.

It is also the first reactor in northeastern Japan to be restarted, as well as the first Boiling Water Reactor, the same type of reactor as those that melted down at the Fukushima plant following the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami.

What is the Onagawa nuclear plant and what happened to it after the earthquake and tsunami?

The Onagawa nuclear power plant sits on a peninsula in Miyagi Prefecture about 130 kilometers from the epicenter of the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami. It has three reactors, one of which is being decommissioned. The 25-year-old No. 2 reactor is capable of generating 825 megawatts of electricity. A third reactor, which is 18 years old, can provide the same amount of electricity and remains offline, though an application for a restart is being prepared as well.

The plant provided electricity to the Tohoku region, including neighboring Fukushima Prefecture, where three reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant melted down after the 2011 disaster. The Onagawa plant’s seawall was high enough so that flood damage from the estimated 13 meter tsunami that struck it was not as bad as could have been, and Tohoku Electric was able to shut it down safely. It has remained idle since.

What was the process that led to the governor’s decision to approve a restart?

After the quake and tsunami, the government created the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to set tougher safety and disaster prevention standards at nuclear power plants and review restart applications from plant operators — the nation’s major utility companies — to ensure the new standards had been met.

Tohoku Electric decided in 2018 to scrap the No. 1 reactor, but they applied to the NRA for a safety assessment on the No. 2 reactor in December 2013, after agreeing to strengthen the plant’s safety infrastructure. This includes construction of a 29-meter-high, 800-meter-long seawall to protect against tsunami damage. Total construction costs to meet the new safety standards are estimated to be around ¥340 billion.

In February, the NRA declared the Onagawa plant to be in compliance with the new standards, and officials from the Agency For Natural Resources and Energy at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which is in charge of nuclear power, began lobbying the Miyagi governor and Onagawa officials to approve a restart.

In April, Tohoku Electric announced that completing the necessary safety-related construction would be delayed until 2022. This, however, did not affect the NRA decision or the government’s attempts to seek local approval for a restart. In September, the Onagawa Municipal Assembly agreed to a restart, and other local governments nearby — including the town of Ishinomaki, which suffered heavy damage in the quake and tsunami — also agreed to let the No. 2 reactor be restarted.

Why did local officials give their blessing for a restart?

Onagawa and surrounding towns suffered heavy economic damage due to the quake and tsunami, and the nuclear power plant was a major source of jobs and revenue, in the form of government subsidies for the town to host the plant and for the local service industry firms that did business with it.

The quake killed about 800 Onagawa residents, and the population declined from about 10,000 people in 2010 to about 6,300 today. An Onagawa chamber of commerce survey showed almost half of the roughly 600 businesses in operation before the quake have closed. These circumstances led to the push to have the No. 2 reactor restarted.

A local fisheries cooperative, whose members had received local government aid after 2011, also supported a restart. That aid came partially from local taxes the Onagawa plant provided to the town.

In his announcement on Nov. 11, Murai cited both the fact that the plant had passed the NRA standards as well as its importance for local jobs and the local economy as the reasons why he approved a restart.

Will the reactor restart immediately?

The new protective seawall must be completed first. It’s currently estimated that it may not be until fiscal 2023 that the reactor is turned back on and generating electricity.

However, while local permission has been given, Onagawa and Miyagi Prefecture are expected to press the central government for additional funding to improve an access road near the plant to more easily evacuate people in the event of a disaster. In his announcement, Murai also called on the government to make more effort to improve roads near the plant.

Can nuclear power help meet Japan's recently announced goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050?

The government's position is that nuclear power will play a role in helping meet that goal. However, that could be problematic. At the moment, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has ruled out constructing new power plants, and the existing ones face a multitude of questions about their future.

As of Nov. 11, 16 reactors at nine nuclear power plants had received permission from the NRA to restart, but only nine were officially in operation. Of these, eight were shut down for regular inspection. Some 24 nuclear reactors are being decommissioned, a process that takes decades to complete.

The government’s current long-term energy strategy calls for nuclear power to provide between 20% and 22% of the nation’s electric power supply by fiscal 2030. The Agency for Natural Resources has said to meet that goal, the restart of 30 reactors is necessary.

There are a number of issues that could make that goal difficult. These include the cost of meeting the new NRA safety standards that went into place after 3/11 and the time needed to upgrade facilities. For the operator, those costs raise questions of whether it is worth investing and whether nuclear power-generated electricity will remain competitive with renewable energy in the coming years.

Other issues could also drive up the costs of restarting more reactors, beginning with subsidies to local governments. With no financial incentive, village heads, city mayors and prefectural governors could delay or refuse permission to restart. Even if permission is granted, operators may face lawsuits from residents opposed to restarts, a process that could delay or even halt the process if a judge rules in their favor, which would mean further costs for the operator.

Finally, there is the question for both the operator and the government of decommissioning-related costs for old plants the operators have decided to scrap, as well as the already thorny issue of what to do with the nuclear waste that has accumulated, which will only increase further as more reactors go online.

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