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Ready for the grid?

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
July 4, 2013

Twenty-eight months after the second-worst nuclear accident in history, four of Japan's utilities companies prepare to file applications to restart 12 reactors. Critics say problems at the plants have not been addressed.

A Gamma-Scout Geiger counter takes measurements of the air (Photo: Christian Jung dpa/lsw+++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Over the next three days, Naomi Hirose, the president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), will spend time in discussions in Niigata Prefecture in an effort to convince the local government to support the firm's request to restart reactors at its massive Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear complex.

The world's largest atomic energy plant is spread over more than 4 square kilometers on the northwest coast of Japan and the seven reactors have a combined total output of 8.2 gigawatts. And although the plant sustained no damage from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it was a mere 25km from a magnitude 6.6 earthquake in July 2007 that was so severe that it shook the facility beyond its design capabilities and did cause structural damage.

Given its history, and ongoing concerns among local people about the safety of nuclear energy in Japan in general, Governor Hirohiko Izumida has already made it clear that he will not easily agree to a restart of reactors that have remained shut down for regular inspections since 2011.

Speaking to reporters before the TEPCO president's visit, Izumida said filing to restart the reactors "could destroy the company's trust with local governments."

Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi nuclear power plant No. 3, right, and No. 4 reactors are seen in Ohi, Fukui prefecture, western Japan, as experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency conduct their first inspection of the Japanese nuclear power plant that has undergone official "stress tests," a key step required to restart dozens of nuclear plants idled in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. (Photo:Shizuo Kambayashi, File/AP/dapd)
Prior to March 2011, nuclear power provided Japan over 30percent of its electricity needsImage: AP

"TEPCO's plan to file an application without fulfilling its responsibilities will never gain the understanding of the public," he added. "The utility has failed to provide any explanation to the local community."

Much yet to be done

A spokesperson for TEPCO suggested that the company was aware it had much to do before local people were convinced that the plant is safe.

"We are going to talk with the local government and we have not yet decided when we will request to restart the reactors," the official told DW. "We just want to do it as quickly as possible.

"TEPCO has made a lot of safety improvements at the plant, in line with the regulators' requirements," the official added.

To date, those improvements include the construction of sea walls designed to protect each of the seven reactors from a tsunami 15 meters high, ensuring critical equipment rooms are watertight, the introduction of two gas turbines to provide emergency power and new emergency training drills for staff at the site.

Operators of Japan's other reactor sites say they have also made similar infrastructure improvements and four regional companies have announced they will file applications with the Nuclear Regulation Agency on Monday to switch 12 of their plants back on.

After racking up losses of Y1.59 trillion (12.26 billion euros) in the fiscal year that ended on March 31 because their plants were off-line, the companies are becoming increasingly desperate to restart their revenue flows.

A protester with a painting of a nuclear sign takes part in an anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo July 1, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao)
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima led to an anti-nuclear movementImage: Reuters

Pressure on the NRA

And environmental groups claim that is increasingly leading to pressure being put on the nominally independent Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

"It's an outrageous situation," Aileen Mioko-Smith, of Kyoto-based Green Action Japan, told DW. "The regulations require that sea walls be built to protect these plants and that work has not been completed. The operators also need to have seismically isolated buildings available for a disaster, but at the Oi atomic plant they are permitting Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) to use an ordinary conference room.

"The NRA was tasked with coming up with these rules and then making sure they are enforced, but they are completely ignoring them," she said. "There is a real threat of another disaster here."

Mioko-Smith accuses the regulators and KEPCO of agreeing to one thing in public meetings and then going back on those decisions after 80 subsequent rounds of discussions that were closed to the public.

The greatest concern is over the safety of reactors three and four at the Oi plant, which the NRA concluded on Wednesday, July 3, are in no danger and can continue to operate until regularly scheduled safety tests in September. The NRA did, however, admit on Thursday, July 4, that raising Japan's safety culture to the standards seen in the nuclear industries of other nations will "take a long time."

The agency agreed that awareness of the dangers posed by nuclear energy had been under-estimated before March 11, but it hopes that operators have now learned their lesson.

Three active fault lines

Anti-nuclear activists say the NRA's approval comes despite KEPCO "blatantly ignoring demands" for an assessment of no fewer than three active seismic fault lines that have been identified beneath the plant.

Mioko-Smith says the evidence suggests that a major earthquake could move all three fault lines simultaneously and move a stretch of the Earth's surface more than 80km long.

Opponents of what appears to be a relentless drive to restart the reactors may be in the majority in Japan, but they are being drowned out by the government and big business.

Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency inspect the Ohi nuclear power plant in Ohi, Fukui prefecture, in Japan Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (Photo:Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/dapd)
The Daiichi incident led to the shutdown and inspection of nuclear power plantsImage: dapd

On July 1, the right-wing Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper ran an editorial headlined "Simply calling for an end to nuclear power is irresponsible" and asked, "How can Japan, a nation with few natural resources, end its use of nuclear power generation?"

The question is not only a domestic issue, critics point out, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the government are making strenuous efforts to export Japan's nuclear technology, with Tokyo hoping that recent talks with Vietnam, Turkey and a number of other countries will lead to export orders for Japanese firms.

"Fukushima is still an ongoing crisis, so when these companies and the government say they are trying to export this technology when they can't deal with the mess they have already made, that makes me very angry," Mioko-Smith said.

"They are exporting nuclear technology because they know it will be very difficult to sell the idea at home ever again, so this is purely to maintain the profits of Toshiba, Mitsubishi and the other companies," she added. "I believe this is deeply unethical."