The Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, which recently got the green light from the Nuclear Regulation Authority to operate beyond a 40-year lifespan, will be a test case for whether reactor operators can obtain consent for their restart from not only the host municipalities but those in the surrounding area that would also be affected by a Fukushima-level accident. Last March, Tokai No. 2’s operator, Japan Atomic Power Co., concluded an agreement with six municipalities in the prefecture, including the host village of Tokai, that it would obtain their consent before restarting the idled plant — the first of its kind among nuclear plant operators, which normally seek the approval of only the host municipality and prefecture for a restart.

The Tokai No. 2 plant, which began commercial operations in November 1978, is the first nuclear plant hit by the tsunami generated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake to win the NRA’s nod for a restart. The plant was flooded by the tsunami and lost the supply of electricity to cool its reactor but averted a meltdown because part of the emergency backup power supply remained intact. Idled since that year, the plant would have reached the 40-year mandatory limit on its operation at the end of this month and faced decommissioning unless the NRA approved the 20-year extension.

A rule established in the wake of the March 2011 crisis restricts the operation of a nuclear plant to 40 years from its launch — a limit that can be extended once, for up to 20 years, with NRA approval. While extension of a plant’s life beyond 40 years was initially called an “exception,” the NRA has already given the go-ahead for extending the operation of four reactors, including the unit at Tokai No. 2. Power companies have sought the 20-year extension for aging reactors with large power-generation capacities while choosing to decommission less-powerful units that, if their operation is extended, would have no chance of recouping the huge investments needed for the safety upgrades required for an extension.

Tokai No. 2 is the only nuclear plant located close to the greater Tokyo area. Since the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant affected not just its host towns but also residents in surrounding communities, the government has required municipalities within 30 kilometers of a nuclear plant to devise evacuation plans for their residents in case of a severe accident. About 960,000 people live within 30 km of the Tokai No. 2 plant — the largest number in the vicinity of a nuclear plant in Japan. Since the NRA’s approval for its restart, mayors of some of the municipalities have indicated their opposition, citing difficulties in safely evacuating so many residents.

Power companies have sought approval for reactor restarts from municipalities and prefectures where their nuclear power plants are located, and the host municipalities, which benefit from the related businesses and government subsidies, have mostly been cooperative. There has been resentment, however, among municipalities in adjacent areas over the lack of any voice in the plants’ operations even though their residents would also be affected in a large-scale accident. The agreement concluded between Japan Atomic Power and the six Ibaraki municipalities is a rare case in that the company included not just the host village of Tokai but five nearby cities — Mito, Naka, Hitachinaka, Hitachi and Hitachiota — among the parties whose consent would be sought in reactivating the plant. It is believed that the power firm acceded to the wishes of Tokai village, which said it did not want to take sole responsibility for a restart given the large population that could be affected.

Divisions appear to be emerging among the municipalities, however, as to how they view the agreement. Naka Mayor Toru Umino has expressed opposition to restarting the reactor at Tokai No. 2, while Yasushi Takahashi, the mayor of Mito, said it’s impossible to discuss restarting the plant until effective plans for evacuating the area have been compiled. So far, only the city of Hitachiota has devised such an evacuation plan. While Umino says that the plant cannot be restarted if any one of the six municipalities opposes it, Tokai Mayor Osamu Yamada denies that the agreement gives municipalities veto power.

The concern on the part of the municipalities that have a stake in the safety of the plant is legitimate. Restarting the Tokai No. 2 plant will have to wait anyway, until the ongoing work to improve its safety features is completed in March 2021. Its operator needs to respect the agreement and heed what the municipalities have to say.

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