A family walk past rubble after the Japan earthquake and tsunami

Japan gets closer to local approval for nuclear reactor restart

Japan has moved closer to getting local governments’ approval to restart nuclear reactors after March’s quake and tsunami.

Japan’s trade and energy minister, Banri Kaieda, undeterred by several dozen anti-nuclear protesters urging him to go home, tried to persuade local governments in the southern Saga prefecture that it was safe to restart nuclear reactors shut since a deadly natural disaster struck the country’s northeast on March 11.

Kaieda’s trip to Saga, his first such visit since the disaster, was interpreted as a sign that Tokyo was hoping reactors at Kyushu Electric Power’s 36-year old plant in the town of Genkai would be the first to win approval from local authorities to return online.

“I am aware it’s a tough decision for the local government, but we would like your understanding for a restart,” Kaieda said in a meeting with Genkai city mayor Hideo Kishimoto, who said he would approve the restart.

But Saga governor Yasushi Furukawa sounded more cautious. Furukawa told reporters that matters of safety and support from the local assembly did not stand in the way of reactivation but that the prefectural assembly must back the national government’s request to restart the reactors.

“We need to listen to what type of debate takes place in the prefectural assembly,” Furukawa said after meeting with Kaieda.

An official at the Genkai city office said the mayor would try to give his approval by mid-July for the restart.

Approvals from both the governor and the mayor of the neighbouring city of Karatsu will be needed to restart the reactors in Saga after the government suspended scheduled restarts following the March 11 disaster.

The March 11 disaster crippled the Fukushima power plant in northeast Japan, triggering the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and fanning safety concerns in communities hosting nuclear facilities, at home and around the world.

Out of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors, 35 remain shut, including six at the Fukushima Daiichi plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).

Tokyo fears that local governments’ refusal to sanction the restart of reactors shut for regular maintenance will exacerbate the loss of power generating capacity and lead to blackouts when demand peaks in the summer.

Before the atomic crisis, nuclear power provided about 30 per cent of Japan’s electricity, a figure that fell last month to about 20 per cent. Unless Japan overrides public disapproval and orders the restart of some reactors, under current regulations the country’s last plant are scheduled to shut for maintenance by April next year and leave the country with no nuclear power.

The meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, 240 kilometres north of Tokyo, and radiation leaks that forced the evacuation of about 80,000 residents of the surrounding areas have swayed public opinion against nuclear energy.

A poll showed earlier this week that nearly 70 per cent of Japanese people opposed restarting reactors, even if that meant power blackouts and higher electricity bills.

TEPCO’s setbacks as it struggles to bring the battered Fukushima Daiichi plant under control have helped harden public opinion towards nuclear power.

TEPCO said it had discovered a leak, the second at the plant in three days, of radioactive water at its Fukushima Daiichi plant. A spokesman for the utility said it was not clear how much water had leaked or whether it had seeped into the groundwater. The leak was caused by failure to seal a cap on a storage tank for water processed by a French-built system to reduce the level of radioactive contamination.

The Genkai plant in Saga has four reactors, two of which are in operation. Kyushu Electric was ready to restart the remaining two reactors in March and April but kept them shut after the March disaster at Fukushima.

In May, Chubu Electric Power Co closed its Hamaoka nuclear plant in central Japan at the request of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who said it would be vulnerable if a major earthquake hit the area. However, since then, it has offered repeated assurances that several other facilities were safe to operate.

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