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Sunday, June 17, 2012

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Further restarts hinge on new watchdog

Staff writer

Although the government instructed Kansai Electric Power Co. to resume operations at the Oi power station in Fukui Prefecture on Saturday, the fate of the nation's other 48 reactors will remain in limbo until the launch of a new nuclear regulator later this year.

Senior government officials say whether and when the other units can be restarted will largely depend on the new safety criteria drawn up by the new regulator, which is now expected to be established in September.

The five-member "nuclear regulatory commission" will be given more independence from the government and its nuclear promotion bodies than the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

NISA has been criticized for its lack of independence and professional knowledge and for failing to prevent and handle the Fukushima crisis. METI, whose mandate is to promote nuclear power, has been bashed for being too close to the agency and the nuclear power industry.

"In my opinion, we should wait for the new regulatory organizations to be launched to proceed with the process of confirming the safety of reactors (for future restarts)," METI chief Yukio Edano said in April.

Edano repeated Saturday that the restart process for the other reactors is unlikely to move forward under the current regulatory regime, since the government has been unable to convince the Nuclear Safety Commission, which is tasked with reviewing NISA's safety checks, to proceed.

The NSC was supposed to be disbanded at the end of March to make way for the new regulator in April, which left the commission in limbo and damaged its credibility.

Some prefectural leaders with reactors in their areas also want the new bodies to take over the reactivation process.

"As for reactors other than those at Oi, I think it's natural to think that the new regulatory bodies should lead the process," Saga Gov. Yasushi Furukawa said during a June 5 visit to METI.

Thus, it appears Japan will have to get by without most of its nuclear reactors this summer.

After resuming operations at Oi, the No. 3 unit at the Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture is seen as the most likely to be restarted because it is the only other reactor that has passed the government's stress tests, a safety evaluation based on computer simulations of tsunami and earthquake impacts.

Shikoku Electric Power Co., the plant's operator, estimates its power supply capacity in August will be around 5.87 million kw without nuclear power and that peak demand will reach 5.85 million kw.

That would give it a razor-thin margin of only 0.3 percentage points. Utilities usually maintain a margin of at least 8 percentage points to ensure a stable power supply.

Shikoku Electric, however, is pessimistic about getting the Ikata reactor online this summer since the political process for approving restarts has stalled.

"It seems pretty difficult to reactivate the reactor this summer," said Ryuji Ogawa, a public relations official at Shikoku Electric.

The government originally wanted to launch the new nuclear regulator in April so it could restart some of the reactors before summer. But the Liberal Democratic Party blocked deliberations on the related bill, saying the new body should be given more political independence, given the confusion that ensued when the government attempted to get a grip on the Fukushima crisis.

The major political parties finally agreed Thursday on a revised version of the bill, which the Lower House passed the next day. The bill to establish a new nuclear watchdog states that it must be launched within three months of its enactment. The Upper House is expected to pass the bill this week, and some media reports say it will be up and running by September.

According to the bill, the five members chosen for the new regulator must be approved by the Diet. The regulator will be supported by a secretariat staffed with hundreds of bureaucrats.

Once the new watchdog is launched, "I assume it will check the safety of reactors and make independent decisions (on further restarts)," Edano said earlier this month, adding that even the No. 3 and 4 units at Oi could be suspended again if they fail to meet the revised criteria.

Under the current regulatory system, utilities have to report the initial findings of the two-stage stress tests to NISA. If the agency approves them, the NSC checks whether the decision is valid. After that, ministers discuss whether the reactors are safe enough to restart and hold talks with local political leaders in the areas hosting them.

But the NSC has stopped reviewing NISA's reports since the Oi tests because key ministers have said the new watchdog should handle the process. Up to this point, the agency had received first-stage stress test reports on 22 reactors, including the two Oi units and Ikata's reactor 3.

Ogawa of Shikoku Electric said that if the utility can restart the Ikata No. 3 reactor, it will improve the utility's capacity by 0.89 million kw, allowing it to easily cover the peak demand projected this summer. But since the process is not moving forward, "we cannot really include Ikata's supply in our estimations for now," Ogawa said.

Before the March 2011 quake and tsunami, nuclear power accounted for about 40 percent of Shikoku Electric's power supply, according to Ogawa. He said buying fuel for thermal power generation each day will cost the utility about ¥400 million to ¥500 million compared to before the natural disasters.

But even at the Ikata plant, the time frame for restarting reactor 3 remains uncertain, which means the government's prospects of firing up any other units this summer are also dim.

The government expects Kyushu and Hokkaido to struggle to meet peak demand this summer, because they are projected to experience power shortages of 2.2 percent and 1.9 percent. Therefore, Kyushu aims to reduce peak demand by 10 percent and Hokkaido by 7 percent.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., which is unable to use the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, the world's largest nuclear power plant, is actually expected to have an energy surplus of 4.5 percent because it was forced to beef up thermal power generation to deal with the Fukushima crisis.

While Japan won't be seeing much nuclear power this summer, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has indicated the country will still have to rely on it to some extent because the reversion to thermal power is hitting utilities with extra fuel costs that will eventually be passed onto consumers.

"If we end (nuclear power) or if we continue to avoid reactivating reactors," everything will grind to a standstill, Noda said June 8.

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