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Japanese nuclear operators seek to restart power plants

Four Japanese nuclear companies have formally applied for government approval to restart dozens of power plants. Almost all of the country’s nuclear plants were shut down following the Fukushima disaster two years ago.

The move, announced by the four nuclear operators on Monday, is seen as the first step toward Japan's returning to the use of power in a big way since the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in March 2011. Prior to the disaster, in which all but two of the country's 50 plants were shut down, Japan relied on nuclear power for about one-third of its electricity needs .

According to Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), the Hokkaido Electric Power Company, Kansai Electric Power, Shikoku Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power have applied to reopen a total of 10 reactors. However, officials said the process of reviewing the facilities to ensure that they meet the country's safety standards would take at least six months.

No guarantee

There is also no guarantee that they will be allowed to open even if they win the NRA's approval. Under tougher new nuclear regulations introduced following the Fukushima disaster, politicians at the regional or national level have the power to block the reopening of any given nuclear plant.

The company that ran the Daiichi plant, Tokyo Electric Power, has held off submitting an application to restart reactors at its Kashiwazaki Kariwa facility in light of opposition from local authorities.

"We are considering submitting the application, but we have a policy of seeking local agreement on it," a TEPCO spokesman told the AFP news agency.

The Japanese government is reported to be keen to get nuclear plants back to work as a way of reducing fuel costs, which is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic reform plans.

A senior member of Abe's government stressed that it would be up to the power companies to convince the NRA and politicians that the nuclear plants in question were safe.

"It is important that assessment will be done in a strict manner by the Nuclear Regulation Authority based on the new standards," Katsunobu Kato, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, told a press conference on Monday. "It is a precondition that host communities agree on the re-firing, so we hope utilities give detailed explanations to local residents."

Among the requirements introduced in the wake of the Fukushima disaster are measures designed to protect nuclear facilities from accidents caused by earthquakes or tsunamis, as well as possible terrorist attacks.

The Fukushima meltdowns followed a tsunami, which was caused by an earthquake, forcing around 160,000 people from their homes, many of whom are not expected to be able to return for several decades.

pfd/kms ( AFP, Reuters, dpa)