The Nuclear Regulation Authority appears to be moving toward approving Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding Inc.’s bid to restart two of the idled reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture — the same type of boiling water reactor (BWR) that suffered core meltdowns at its Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011. Tepco sees the restart of reactors 6 and 7 at the Niigata plant as vital to its financial reconstruction. However, the way the NRA is wrapping up its safety screening of Tepco’s plan seems less than convincing.

Even if the NRA gives it nod, it remains uncertain when the plant will be restarted given that Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama says it will take “at least three to four more years” before making a judgment on whether to grant local consent to the restart, which he says will require a full review of the 2011 crisis. Instead of rushing to a decision, what’s required of the NRA is a screening process that will be accountable to the public.

In a meeting last Wednesday, the NRA held off certifying the safety of the two Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors, as it had been widely expected to do, in the face of criticism that it has not sufficiently discussed whether Tepco, responsible for the 2011 disaster, is fit to operate a nuclear plant. It was believed that the NRA wanted to wrap up the screening while Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, who will leave the post this week, was still on board. Still, Tanaka told a news conference that the nuclear watchdog has reached a consensus that Tepco is qualified to run nuclear plants.

Just two months ago, Tanaka, in a meeting that was also attended by Tepco’s top management, severely criticized the utility over the way it was approaching the task of cleaning up the mess of Fukushima No. 1, saying that a power company which “lacks the will to take the initiative” in decommissioning the crippled Fukushima plant “does not have the right to restart operations” of a nuclear power plant. While Tanaka urged the Tepco executives to submit a document detailing how the firm intends to dispose of radiation-contaminated water at Fukushima No. 1, the utility’s reply delivered in August did not mention any concrete plans for disposing of the contaminated water that has built up there.

During a hearing in late August, however, the utility pledged its resolve to see the decommissioning process through to the end. This has reportedly gained the understanding of the NRA. The nuclear watchdog began wrapping up the screening of Tepco’s bid at its meeting on Sept. 6 — in which participants reportedly gave positive comments about its plan, such as that the experience of the Fukushima catastrophe should serve as a plus for the company’s operation of its other plants. Another participant was quoted as saying that Tepco’s responsibility for the 2011 accident is one thing and its technological capacity to run nuclear plants is another.

At the last meeting, the NRA reportedly agreed that Tepco is fit to restart the reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa — on condition that the utility state in its rules its determination to implement all new safety measures in running nuclear power plants. It’s not clear how the doubts expressed so strongly in July about Tepco’s qualifications as a nuclear plant operator have been dispelled by verbal pledges of its “determination” to follow safety rules and by writing them down in its safety rules.

More than six years after the meltdowns, the path to decommissioning Fukushima No. 1 still has a long way to go. Detailed conditions of the melted fuel debris inside the crippled reactors — the removal of which will pose the biggest hurdle to decommissioning the plant — remain unknown.

Just two years after the disaster broke out, Tepco filed for an NRA screening of its plan to reactivate the reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. Tepco is placing its hopes on resuming operation of the Niigata plant — the world’s largest nuclear power station in terms of output capacity — as a key to restoring its financial bottom line, which has been battered by the massive costs of paying for the aftermath of the 2011 catastrophe.

At that time, Tepco said there was no problem with the earthquake resistance of an emergency response center at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. But even though it later learned that the emergency unit’s quake resistance was insufficient, it failed to report this fact to the NRA for three years. It was only in June that the company submitted a revised application. That alone brings into question Tepco’s commitment to safety as a nuclear power plant operator. One wonders what altered the NRA’s assessment of Tepco to determine that the utility is fit to run a nuclear plant.

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