Shifting Grounds: The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the world's largest, is one of those that utilities want to restart, under new regulations. But local leaders aren’t pleased.Photo: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Last week in Japan new safety regulations for nuclear reactors went into effect, as the government tries to ensure that the nation will never again be rocked by nuclear catastrophe. These regulations provide a path for nuclear power plants to resume operations, and five power companies promptly submitted applications for the restart of 12 reactors, with more applications expected in the coming months.
More than two turbulent years have passed since a tsunami smashed into the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. During those years, shifting political administrations have offered dramatically different visions of Japan’s energy future. Now, with the pronuclear Liberal Democratic Party expected to consolidate its hold on the government in parliamentary elections next week, Japan seems poised to embrace nuclear power once again.
Currently only two of Japan’s 50 functional reactors are in operation; the rest are shut down for safety checks. Utilities have been forced to run coal-, gas-, and oil-fired plants at high capacity to keep Japan’s production lines running and the lights of Tokyo burning bright. The nuclear restarts have been championed by Japan’s business and industrial groups, which fear the economic impact of continuing to rely on expensive imported fossil fuels.
Before the Fukushima accident, nuclear power supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, and the government’s energy plan called for an increase to 50 percent. Masakazu Toyoda, Chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, says that pre-Fukushima goal must shift. “We don’t have to have 50 percent, but 20 or 25 percent might be necessary,” he says. “I think that we cannot survive without nuclear.”
Japan’s new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which was established after the Fukushima accident in response to widespread distrust of the previous regulatory agencies, will evaluate the reactors’ defenses against earthquakes, tsunamis, and power outages. It will also determine whether any of the reactors were built on active seismic faults—although what constitutes an active fault has become a point of contention. In May, the NRA declared that the No. 2 reactor at the Tsuruga City nuclear power plant stood directly over an active fault, which would prohibit it from restarting. But the company that owns the Tsuruga plant, Japan Atomic Power Co., challenged that ruling last week and announced that it would seek to restart the reactor.
The NRA’s safety assessments will not be accomplished quickly, explains Keigo Akimoto, an analyst with a Kyoto think tank called Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth. “The NRA has only three teams to do the checks of nuclear power plants, and a team will need at minimum two months to do a check of a single power plant,” he says. During this summer’s peak electricity use, Akimoto predicts, only the two currently operating reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plants will be in service. “After this summer, in September or October, maybe three nuclear power plants will restart, and then three more, at two-month intervals,” says Akimoto. And some reactors may not pass the NRA’s inspection on their first try, Akimoto adds.
The NRA inspection and assessment of a reactor’s safety systems is just the first step toward its restart. After the agency issues its recommendation, the central government is responsible for the final verdict on the reactor. Local governments will weigh in on that political decision; both the governor of the prefecture and the mayor of the town where the reactor is located have implicit veto power over a restart.
Those local politics may be complicated, says Hiroyuki Tezuka, a member of Keidanren, Japan’s powerful business lobby. “Some reactors were in poor areas, and the nuclear power plant was one of the very important local businesses,” Tezuka says. “In those cases the governors and businesses are waiting for restart.” In other cases, he says, the economics of the region make the nuclear power plant less important, and opposition to the restart is strong. “Some governors are very critical,” he says.
The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world’s largest nuclear power plant, is a case in point. It’s owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (the utility that owns the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant), and the company said earlier this month that it will ask the NRA for approval to restart two of the plant’s seven reactors. However, TEPCO made that announcement without consulting with local political leaders, who raised an outcry and said they would oppose the restart because TEPCO had “disregarded public opinion.” TEPCO’s president has since met with the local leaders to officially apologize, and the company has put off the application for restarts.
Then there’s the Fukushima Dai-ni plant, which stands about 10 kilometers south of Fukushima Dai-ichi. It’s within the mandatory evacuation zone established after the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident, and residents have still not returned to the area—towns are empty and rice fields lie fallow. While there is no technical reason that Fukushima Dai-ni can’t restart, the politics of the traumatized region make it impossible. Fukushima prefecture’s revival will be based on renewable energy, rather than nuclear power, states Shuzo Sasaki, director of the prefecture’s energy division. The prefecture’s goal is to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, he explains. Asked whether the Fukushima Dai-ni plant could ever reopen, Sasaki replies, “In Fukushima, you can’t imagine that. It would be unreal.”
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.