Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority granted approval on Wednesday for a restart of the nuclear reactors at the Sendai plant on the southern island of Kyushu, potentially paving the way for the first such plants to come back online after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.
The agency issued a release saying that the Sendai plant's units 1 and 2 "were deemed to meet the NRA's new regulatory requirements," which they claim are among the most stringent in the world. The approval comes after a review of 18,600 pages of documentation from the plant's owner, Kyushu Electric Power, and apparent safety measure improvements put in place after the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima.
The country's 48 nuclear reactors have all been quiet since the crisis began, and the government has waffled on just what part nuclear power will play in the electricity mix in the future. Though the NRA has issued this approval for Sendai, the New York Times reports that it will likely be months before an actual restart of the reactors can take place. Local governments near the plant must issue approvals before the reactors can be switched on, and prime minister Shinzo Abe will be responsible for a final approval.
The road to this point has been rocky for Japan. In September 2012, the country essentially committed to doing away with nuclear power. Only a few months later, though, the newly formed NRA issued new safety regulations that would allow the shuttered plants to restart. Those rules went into effect by last summer, which paved the way for the Sendai decision this week.
The backdrop to all this is that the public is apparently still quite skeptical of nuclear power in a country where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis aren't likely to disappear any time soon. The Sendai plant, for example, sits particularly close to the site of a current volcano warning from the Japan Meteorological Agency ("Do not approach the volcano"). Though most of Japan fits this description, the island of Kyushu is indicated as particularly high risk on the USGS seismic hazard maps.
The Times reports that public opinion polls are still sour on nuclear power; the NRA reviewed more than 17,000 comments submitted on Sendai's safety measures, far more than the agency expected to receive. Whether the public's skepticism or the government's support end up winning out for Japan's nuclear future remains to be seen.