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Japan Takes Steps to Reopen Reactors

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Japan on Monday reopened procedures to allow idled reactors to be brought back online, putting in place new nuclear regulations that reflect the lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 meltdown disaster.

While power utilities are expected to rush to file applications with the Nuclear Regulation Authority for safety assessments on a total of 10 reactors, none will be restarted anytime soon, because it may take around six months for each safety-screening process to finish.

Facing what the NRA calls the world’s toughest level of nuclear regulations, utilities may also opt to give up efforts to restart some of the country’s 50 commercial reactors and scrap them instead of investing in costly safety measures.

Four regional utilities filed applications Monday morning for the restart of 10 reactors at five nuclear power plants, in Hokkaido, Fukui, Ehime, and Kagoshima prefectures. Tokyo Electric Power Co. has also expressed its intention to request an NRA safety review for two reactors at its seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex in Niigata Prefecture, but local opposition has made it difficult for the utility to apply Monday.

Among those applying for restarts, reactors that could precede others include unit 3 at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, which has been found not to have geologic faults that need to be checked and has already prepared a newly required seismic-isolated emergency response center.

Reactors must also have a venting system with filters that can reduce the amount of radioactive substances when pressure needs to be released from reactor containers during emergencies, but pressurized water reactors like unit 3 at the Ikata plant are given a five-year moratorium to meet the requirement.

But prospects appear bleak for aging units that will not only have to satisfy the new regulations but also undergo special inspections to continue to operate beyond 40 years.

The existence of active faults running beneath atomic plants could also be a critical factor that will result in the permanent shutdown of reactors.

The NRA has already acknowledged that reactor 2 at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture sits above a fault where movement cannot be ruled out in the last 120,000 to 130,000 years — a situation not allowed in the quake-prone country.

Japan entered a period of no nuclear power generation in May last year, but the government agreed two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi plant to address power shortage concerns in the summer in western Japan. No other reactors have resumed operation since, while the NRA was launched in September to replace the previous, discredited nuclear regulator and to devise the new reactor safety regimen. After the NRA confirms that a reactor satisfies the new regulations, the operator will seek the consent of the host communities to restart them.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has made clear it will push for the restart of reactors that are deemed safe and has also vowed to play a part in winning local-level cooperation.

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