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A nuclear plant in Ohi, Japan
Plants in Japan have undergone stress testsImage: AP

Balancing act

January 31, 2012

The Japanese government faces an uphill battle as it tries to bring many of its nuclear reactors back online to meet energy demands. Some reactors were switched off in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.


The Japanese cabinet has approved draft legislation that aims to improve the country's nuclear safety regulations. One of the measures proposed would put a cap of 40 years on the lifespan of operational nuclear reactors.

The proposals on Tuesday come as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave its seal of approval to recent stress tests of nuclear reactors in Japan. The Japanese government had requested the IAEA's involvement as it prepared to restart reactors that had been idle pending safety checks after last March's nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

"We concluded that [Japan's National Industrial Safety Agency's] instructions to power plants and its review process for the comprehensive safety assessments are generally consistent with IAEA safety standards," said James Lyons, who headed the IAEA's team in Japan.

"We were very impressed with the way Japan quickly implemented the emergency safety measures after the accident in March. They have also been very active in participating in the international community to determine the steps forward," Lyons added.

Meeting energy demands

IAEA inspectors at a plant in the snow
IAEA inspectors were invited by the Japanese governmentImage: dapd

Japan's cabinet would also like to create a new nuclear safety agency. This would separate the regulation of Japan's nuclear sector from the trade and industry ministries.

Japan is facing an energy crunch as nearly all of its 54 nuclear reactors are offline pending the safety checks. The government hopes to get some of them working again to avoid an energy crunch in the summer months. Currently, Japan is importing large amounts of fossil fuels to meet demand.

The Japanese public is not keen on the idea of switching the reactors back on in light of what happened at Fukushima, despite the stress tests indicating that other plants would be able to survive a similar earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck the country last year.

Local governments must give their consent in order for reactors to be brought back online, and many communities are calling for additional safety checks and assurances.

The IAEA also commented on this issue in its report released Tuesday, saying the National Industrial Safety Agency should "ensure that in the secondary assessment the provisions for mitigation of severe accidents should be addressed more comprehensively."

Over 19,000 people died in the natural disaster that struck Japan on March 11, and while no deaths are directly connected to the ensuing nuclear disaster, thousands of people living near the Fukushima plant were forced to leave their homes due to radiation concerns. Many still have not been able to return.

Author: Matt Zuvela (AFP, AP)
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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