Damaged No.1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi plant

Japan's reactors could restart after first stage of safety checks

Japan’s idled nuclear reactors could restart work if they pass the first stage of two-step post-Fukushima safety checks.

Last week Japan’s government announced it would conduct stress tests on the country’s nuclear reactors. The first stage of the stress tests will target reactors which have already completed routine checks and are ready for restart. The checks will assess resistance to severe earthquakes and other events more extreme than those for which they were designed. A second stage of tests will make a comprehensive safety assessment of all 54 of Japan’s reactors, the government said.

Four months after the Fukushima Daiichi plant was smashed by a tsunami and began leaking radiation, only 19 of the country’s reactors are running and if some do not resume operation, Japan could be without nuclear power by next April.

The disaster has also sparked a broader public debate about the role of nuclear energy in earthquake-prone, resource-poor Japan, which relied on atomic power for almost 30 per cent of its electricity before the crisis.

“Safety and a sense of security are the top priority,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference. “On the other hand, the government must fulfil its responsibility for a stable supply of electricity and is coordinating on this with relevant ministries ... and will make every effort to secure (supply) in the medium and long term,” he added. Edano gave no precise timeframe for completing either of the two stages, but said they should be carried out speedily.

The new assessment scheme, which also lacks detailed procedures, did little to elucidate atomic safety policy for reactor-hosting municipalities, whose approval is by custom required to restart reactors.

“I’m afraid we are still in the dark as to what the government wants to do,” said Shigenobu Oniki, vice mayor of the southern Japanese town of Genkai, home of Kyushu Electric Power Co’s Genkai nuclear power plant. The government had seen two idled reactors at Genkai as prime candidates for the first restarts since the Fukushima crisis. “We don’t know what each stage will be like and what kind of checks will be involved. I think the government owes us an explanation,” Oniki said.

Amid the drawn-out radiation crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s Fukushima plant, credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said, Japan’s energy policy will likely remain unpredictable for some time, posing risks for the utility sector.

“Because the nation’s energy policy forms the backbone of the Japanese electric utility sector’s creditworthiness, we believe prolonged uncertainty could hurt the sector's credit quality,” it said.

Shares in Tokyo Electric have tumbled 80 per cent since the March 11 disasters, while Kansai Electric Power Co and Chubu Electric Power Co, the next two largest power companies, have both lost 31 per cent.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has ordered a full review of Japan’s energy policy, which before the March 11 disasters had aimed to boost nuclear energy’s share of electricity supply to more than half by 2030. He also wants to raise the contribution of renewable energy sources to more than 20 per cent by the 2020s, and has made passage of a bill to promote such energy sources a condition for keeping a promise to resign.

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