• Kyodo, Jiji

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Japan's nuclear regulatory body decided Wednesday to effectively ban Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco) from restarting a nuclear plant on the Sea of Japan coast after the complex was found to have serious safety flaws.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority decided at its meeting to ban Tepco from transporting nuclear fuel to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture or loading it into the reactors. A final decision will be made after the operator is given an opportunity to provide an explanation.

The punitive measure will be effective until Tepco's response to the incident is "in a situation where self-sustained improvement is expected," according to the regulator.

It will be the second administrative order to be issued for a violation of rules under the law to regulate nuclear reactors. The first was imposed in 2013 on the Japan Atomic Energy Agency's Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was found to have been vulnerable to unauthorized entry at 15 locations in March last year when both its primary intruder detection system and the backup system were defective, Tepco and the regulator said earlier this month.

The regulator provisionally rated the breach at the plant to have been at the worst level in terms in safety and severity, marking the first time it has given such an assessment.

In a meeting Wednesday, NRA Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa said the nuclear watchdog has yet to confirm whether Tepco has taken sufficient measures to protect nuclear materials at the plant.

He said that nuclear fuel at the plant is kept in spent fuel pools and that protective measures can be strengthened by preventing the fuel from being transferred.

In September last year, an employee at the plant entered a reactor central control room by using the identification card of another employee.

Facing huge compensation payments and other costs stemming from the 2011 crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant it also operates, Tepco had been keen to resume operations at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to reduce its dependence on costly fossil fuel imports for nonnuclear thermal power generation.

The No. 7 reactor of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant has passed the NRA's safety screening in order to restart. But Tepco will have to suspend its preparations for reactivating the reactor because the envisaged order will prohibit the company from loading nuclear fuel into the reactor.

The NRA is expected to take at least one year to confirm improvements to security measures at the plant. It is uncertain when Tepco will be able to restart the reactor.

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