The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s effective go-ahead last week for restarting two reactors in Niigata Prefecture came just a few months after the departing NRA chief, Shunichi Tanaka, called Tokyo Electric Power Holdings Co. unfit to run a nuclear power station. He said Tepco lacks the will to take the initiative in decommissioning the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, where three reactors suffered core meltdowns in the mega-disaster of March 2011.
While restarting reactors 6 and 7 at the giant Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on the Sea of Japan coast is not expected to take place anytime soon — due to opposition from the local governor, whose consent will be needed — it must be scrutinized whether the nuclear watchdog carefully assessed Tepco’s qualifications as a nuclear plant operator after seeming to question its fitness so severely as recently as July.
Exposed to a tightening business environment due to liberalization of the power retail market, Tepco sees the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant as crucial to rebuilding the company’s finances, which were battered by the massive cost of decommissioning the Fukushima No. 1 plant and paying damages to residents affected by the disaster — which will reach an estimated ¥16 trillion. The government believes that reopening the Niigata plant will help Tepco in its compensation efforts and measures to cope with severe accidents. But that should not factor in the safety screening before bringing the idled reactors back online.
The NRA’s approval for reactivating the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors was the first given to a plant run by Tepco, which continues to struggle in the fight to clean up the mess from the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 after the plant was flooded in a giant tsunami and lost emergency power supply to cool the reactors. It was also the first NRA nod — under a revamped safety standard following the 2011 crisis — for restarting a boiling-water reactor, the same type as used at Fukushima No. 1.
In screening Tepco’s bid to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the NRA focused on whether the power company responsible for the Fukushima debacle was fit to run a nuclear power plant. During a session in July, then-NRA chief Tanaka appeared to doubt that, telling Tepco executives that a company which cannot demonstrate its resolve and achievement to decommission the Fukushima No. 1 plant was not qualified to restart another nuclear plant.
That changed after Tepco told the nuclear watchdog in August that it was determined to follow through on the decommissioning of Fukushima No. 1. During NRA’s sessions held in September, Tanaka said the experience of the Fukushima No. 1 disaster will be a plus for Tepco in its nuclear power plant operation and that the watchdog had reached a consensus that Tepco is qualified to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, setting the stage for the approval given last Wednesday. Toyoshi Fuketa, who took over as NRA chief after Tanaka stepped down Sept. 18, said the NRA ultimately made its judgment solely on the basis of whether Tepco is technologically capable of restarting a nuclear plant. It would be unfortunate if the NRA’s apparent turnaround was driven by its desire to reach a conclusion on the sensitive matter in time for Tanaka’s exit.
It is questionable whether the NRA’s decision properly addresses people’s concern over the safety of nuclear power — as indicated by media surveys that show a major portion of respondents are still opposed to restarting the reactors idled in the wake of the 2011 disaster. Six years later, nuclear energy remains a politically contested issue. While the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for the restart of idled reactors once they have cleared the NRA’s screening, the new party launched by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike — which is poised to be the main contender to Abe’s ruling coalition in the upcoming Lower House snap election — is calling in its campaign platform for a phaseout of nuclear power by 2030.
Power companies seek to reactivate their idled nuclear reactors to save on the huge cost of fuel imported to operate their thermal power plants. Tepco reportedly stands to gain up to ¥200 billion in annual profit by restarting the two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. It’s not clear, however, whether continued reliance on nuclear power will be a sustainable model for the power industry. In many other countries, nuclear power is becoming a costly business due to surging construction and maintenance costs. Power companies in Japan, now exposed to greater competition through electricity retail deregulation, will not be immune to this change.