Japanese nuclear plant to remain closed after court order

A Japanese court has upheld an order to keep two reactors operated by Kansai Electric Power closed, in a further blow to efforts to get the country's struggling nuclear industry up and running.

The decision backs a petition against reopening the plant from residents living near the Takahama atomic station west of Tokyo.

Kansai Electric will now have to go to a higher court if it wants to try and win permission to get the reactors back online.

The move marks the latest judicial impediment to utilities' attempts to restore atomic power after the Fukushima disaster five years ago.

Two out of Japan's 42 operable reactors are running, but a local governor who won election on Sunday has vowed to shut even those units down.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is keen to restore a power source that provided about a third of electricity supply before the meltdowns at Fukushima, the public remains deeply sceptical about industry assurances on safety.

Residents have lodged injunctions against nearby nuclear plants across Japan and lower courts have been increasingly siding with them on safety concerns.

Contentious verdicts are usually overturned by higher courts, where judges tend to be more attuned to government policy, judicial experts say.

But with courts and local politicians providing obstacles there may be further impetus for the government to scale back nuclear targets. Japan is reportedly considering cutting the emphasis on nuclear in its next energy plan.

The government has boosted renewable energy output and the population has responded to requests for more energy efficiency. The government is also strongly pushing for higher use of coal, which has soared to record levels.

Japanese utilities have benefited from a plunge in oil and gas prices that have kept costs down after higher imports of fossil fuels helped drive Japan into a record trade deficit in the years after Fukushima.

The Otsu District Court on March 9 ordered Kansai Electric, Japan's second-biggest utility, to shut down the Takahama reactors in the country's first injunction to halt an operating nuclear plant.

"Today's decision ... is very regrettable and we cannot accept it," Kansai Electric said in a statement, adding that it would file an appeal with the Osaka High Court.

An appeal may take about a year and means continued extra purchases of oil, gas or coal to replace nuclear power generation.

While nuclear generation produces lower carbon emissions than traditional fossil-fuel based power generation, it brings a host of additional problems in the event of a meltdown.

The clean-up efforts following damage to the Fukushima power plant in 2011 are still ongoing, with a giant man-made ice wall recently being constructed underneath the former plant to create a frozen barrier to contain contaminated water. 

In addition, specialised robots have been created to retrieve radioactive material from the site as it is too dangerous for humans to enter the area. But these machines have been repeatedly unable to complete their task due to the impact of radiation upon their circuitry. 

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