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Japan News
Japan Puts 2 Reactors on Restart Path
From the Wall Street Journal of Wed, 17 Dec 2014 04:39:17 EST
The No. 3, left, and No. 4 reactors of Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama nuclear power station have been given safety clearance by Japan’s nuclear regulator.
The No. 3, left, and No. 4 reactors of Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama nuclear power station have been given safety clearance by Japan’s nuclear regulator. Bloomberg News

TOKYO—Japan’s nuclear regulator gave safety clearance to two more reactors Wednesday, raising the prospect that Japan could have four units back online next year to help power the nation’s economy.

The approval comes three days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ’s pronuclear party won decisively in a general election, suggesting a green light for pushing ahead with the resumption of nuclear power in Japan.

But it remains unclear how smooth the process to restart the reactors will be. While the two reactors at the Takahama nuclear plant in western Japan cleared stricter regulations brought in after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, the regulator has emphasized that the decision on restarting them lies outside its remit.

The question of who has the final say over firing up the reactors again remains unanswered, with local consent a requirement, but with doubts remaining over which localities have a say in that decision.

Those issues weren't addressed in an election framed as a referendum on Mr. Abe’s economic strategy, meaning that the new mandate for Abenomics doesn’t necessarily translate into a mandate for putting nuclear power back online.

“Mr. Abe said himself this was an election on Abenomics. It is true that the Liberal Democratic Party won, but it doesn’t mean voters unconditionally approved all his policies,” said Keio University policy Prof. Hidehiko Kasahara.

Opinion polls have consistently shown relatively high approval rates for Mr. Abe at the same time as relatively high disapproval for restarting nuclear power. In a poll by a broadcaster TV Asahi conducted on Dec. 6-7, 44% of respondents said they supported the Abe administration, while 58% of the same respondents said they didn’t agree with restarting nuclear power plants even if they gained clearance from the NRA.

“The election hasn’t changed the restart situation at all,” said Atsushi Suzuki, associate partner of NTT Data Institute of Management & Consulting and an expert of the power industry. “The key still lies in the hands of surrounding communities, just as before.”

The local government hosting the first two units given clearance by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in November has given its consent for the resumption of operations, as has the Kagoshima prefectural government in Kyushu, where the Sendai reactors are located. A few surrounding cities expressed safety concerns but none protested strongly enough to provide a stumbling block.

That means the restarting of the Sendai reactors looks like a simple matter of time, and likely in the first quarter of 2015. But that would still leave the issue of which localities can shape the restart decision unresolved.

Should the government then succeed in getting the Takahama reactors back online, that would likely be a better indicator of whether momentum will build for Japan’s return to nuclear power.

The restarting of the Takahama reactors is unlikely to be opposed by the surrounding communities in Fukui prefecture as the economy of the entire prefecture, with its 13 reactors, has long relied on nuclear power.

Makoto Yagi, the president of Kansai Electric, the operator of the Takahama plant, said in a statement that the utility would do its best to make the plant safe and explain its safety measures to residents in local communities.

But the governors of the adjacent Kyoto and Shiga prefectures have been demanding a say over the reactors in Fukui, citing the potential risk for their own areas.

Without a strict definition of which local communities are allowed to weigh in on the issue, it would be difficult for the central government to totally ignore these requests, Mr. Suzuki said.

Industry minister Yoichi Miyazawa said Tuesday that the government would stick to its policy of restarting nuclear power plants approved by NRA. He also said it would boost the use of renewable energy as much as possible.

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