Three aging nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco) were given final approval for a two-decade extension Wednesday, becoming Japan’s first reactors more than 40 years old to clear all hurdles for an extended run.

“After fully considering the situation, I decided to agree to the restart,” Fukui Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

The utility is now discussing the exact schedule for bringing the reactors back online, but media reports the same day suggested it could be within two months.

Kepco, Fukui Prefecture and the central government believe that running the reactors for another 20 years is necessary for the company’s bottom line and Japan’s future energy mix. The government’s energy policy calls for nuclear power to provide 20% to 22% of the nation’s electricity by 2030.

But where to store spent nuclear fuel generated by the three reactors remains to be decided, with Fukui demanding the fuel be removed from the prefecture but Kepco failing to find a place elsewhere that would agree to accept it.

The reactors Sugimoto gave the green light to Wednesday are Takahama Nos. 1 and 2 (46 and 45 years old, respectively) and Mihama No. 3 (44 years old). A 2012 law sets a 40 year limit on a reactor’s operation in principle, but allows operators to seek approval for a one-time, 20-year extension if they first undertake measures to upgrade the physical plant’s safety as well as formulate emergency plans, including for the evacuation of local residents.

In June 2016, after undertaking the necessary safety upgrades, the Nuclear Regulation Authority approved the operation of Takahama Nos. 1 and 2 beyond 40 years. In November 2016, the NRA gave extension permission for the Mihama No. 3 reactor.

Gaining local approval for the old reactors proved to be a more time consuming process, however. This was partially because of Fukui’s demand that Kepco guarantee that the prefecture would not be forced to keep the spent nuclear fuel for decades in interim storage within its borders.

The Fukui Prefectural Assembly holds an extraordinary session in Fukui on Friday regarding the operation of local nuclear power plants beyond their 40-year limit. | KYODO
The Fukui Prefectural Assembly holds an extraordinary session in Fukui on Friday regarding the operation of local nuclear power plants beyond their 40-year limit. | KYODO

In 2017, Kepco promised to pinpoint an interim disposal location somewhere outside Fukui by the end of 2018, a deadline that was extended in 2018 to 2020. But a site could not be found.

An interim disposal location is supposed to store spent fuel for several decades so it can cool down before it gets transferred to a final disposal site.

In February, Kepco promised Sugimoto it would select a location by the end of 2023. In March, the governor told reporters the issue of interim storage was now separate from the question of restart approval, and that the latter hinged on safety guarantees.

“It’s not about falling into the trap of believing the myth that nuclear power is safe. I want (Kepco) to keep in mind operational safety,” the governor said Wednesday.

By 2030, another 15 reactors will be at least 40 years old, forcing operators to choose between spending money on applying for a 20 year extension and safety upgrades or deciding to decommission. These 15 reactors include two Kepco reactors (Takahama Nos. 3 and 4) and two Kyushu Electric Power. Co. reactors (Sendai Nos. 1 and 2) that have already been restarted.

Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of the Kyoto-based Green Action anti-nuclear network, said that Sugimoto’s decision sets a precedent that could lead to more aging reactors getting restarted instead of being scrapped.

“The governor’s decision opens the door for really old reactors in Japan to be restarted,” she said. “It might be called an exception to the 40-year rule. The reality of phasing out nuclear power (in the coming years) now looks like a different picture if, indeed, these three reactors approved today begin to operate.”

As of March, the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy lists nine reactors nationwide as having been restarted, seven as having received restart approval and 11 currently undergoing inspections for restart. Nine reactors have not applied for a restart and 24 are to be decommissioned, including all six reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, which was damaged in the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and subsequent triple meltdown.

Kepco currently has a total of 11 reactors, all in Fukui Prefecture.

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