Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has approved the restart of the first of the country’s nuclear power plants mothballed in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
The Kyushu Electric Power-operated Sendai power plant obtained the agency’s safety clearance after the company demonstrated that upgraded safety measures had been put in place.
However, the operator of the plant, about 1,000km southwest of Tokyo, will have to persuade local authorities to give the final go-ahead. Japanese media suggested the restart may not come until next year, pending operational safety checks.
The green light for the two nuclear reactors at Sendai was expected after the NRA granted the power station a preliminary approval in July.
The Japanese government is pressing regulators to restart those plants that have implemented new safety measures, required following the Fukushima disaster, to decrease the country’s dependence on costly fuel imports. At the same time, the authorities have to face public opposition.
While the mayor of Satsumasendai, where the Sendai plant is located, and the governor of Kagoshima prefecture are in favour of reopening the plant, local residents remain concerned over evacuation plans. Activists have also said that the regulator has done little to vet volcanic risks near the Sendai plant
Japan has 48 nuclear reactors, some of them older than 40 years. The NRA is now facing the decision which of the power plants should be decommissioned as their safety upgrades would be too costly.
NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka said it takes time and money to clear the additional hurdles. The capacity of the ageing reactors is typically about half that of newer ones and the massive investment necessary to bring them up to scratch may not make economic sense.
The government may ask the operators of 12 reactors that began operations before 1980 to decide by the end of the year whether to decommission them, media have reported.
"For myself, I would like to proceed with smooth decommissioning (of some plants) and at the same time the restart of nuclear power stations certified as safe," Yuko Obuchi, the new minister for economy, trade and industry, who oversees the nuclear industry, said last week.
Under post-Fukushima rules, reactors are supposed to be decommissioned after 40 years. They can receive a 20-year extension but that is subject to more rigorous and costly safety regulations.
As many as two-thirds of Japan's 48 idled nuclear units may never return to operation because of the high costs, local opposition or seismic risks, while one-third will probably come back online eventually, a Reuters analysis showed this year.
Utilities that want to extend the operating life of old reactors must submit detailed safety applications by July 2015, explaining how those facilities could be updated to meet the tough new safety standards.