Japan's Sendai nuke plant tops list for restart

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Japan's nuclear regulator said Thursday it will prioritize restarting two reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai plant pending a final round of checks to ensure they meet new safety standards.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) following meetings in Tokyo said that the two reactors at the plant, located in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima prefecture, will top a list of 17 reactors at 10 nuclear power plants for final screening, to determine if they meet new safety protocols before being allowed to restart.

"I understand that the No. 1 and 2 units at the Sendai plant have cleared major agendas in regard to the assessment of earthquake and tsunami that could affect the plant, while others have not yet," NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka told the meeting of officials in charge of reviewing applications from utility firms to restart their idled reactors.

Toyoshi Fuketa, an NRA commissioner in charge of safety checks and measures against nuclear accidents, added that he was also particularly impressed with the approach of Kyushu Electric Power towards safety and said that ongoing inspections of the reactors are going well.

"We are satisfied with the attitude Kyushu Electric Power has shown on measures against serious accidents. Inspections of the Sendai No. 1 and No. 2 reactors are going smoothly," Fuketa said.

The news from the NRA comes just two days after the third anniversary of the quake and tsunami-triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan's northeast, which forced thousands to evacuate from the area as radioactive materials were released into the air, sea and ground, in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The NRA said that once the reactors in Sendai, to begin with, and others thereafter, have passed the new safety requirements, the utility firms that operate them can request permission from the government and local authorities in the respective regions for the reactors to be brought back online.

Prior to clearance being granted the NRA said it will draft reports based on the reactors' design and capacity to respond to accidents, with the documents acting as certification of the reactors' clearing the safety screening.

The NRA, once the certification has been issued, will then have to campaign for one month for public support for the reactors being brought back online, which observers say may prove an uphill struggle as many residents in nuclear power plant-hosting town and cities are reluctant to see reactors restarted following the Fukushima disaster, which, as yet, has not been fully brought under control.

According to a poll taken this month by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, the majority of citizens here remain against nuclear power, with 69 percent of respondents adamant that nuclear power should be abandoned immediately or phased out over time.

But Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a proponent of nuclear power, in February laid out a mid-term energy plan which calls for the restart of reactors that have cleared the NRA's safety inspections and received certification clearing them to restart, despite ongoing public opposition.

Abe's stance on restarting the reactors, the shuttering of which has cost the government billions of dollars in fossil fuel imports with Japan's current account deficit in January marking a fourth straight month of red ink with the deficit standing at 15.4 billion U.S. dollars, however, remains firm.

The prime minister's position on the matter was made clear by his top spokesperson Thursday, who following the NRA's decision said once safety standards are met, the reactors should be fired up.

"The NRA checks if standards are met and if it concludes they have been, the government would like to restart the reactors," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said."

"We'd like to see the NRA implement rigorous checks based on what are seen as the toughest safety standards in the world," Japan's top government spokesperson added. "After that, working with the local authorities, we'll jointly make a judgment," Suga said.

In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, 48 of Japan's commercial reactors remain offline and the government is keen to begin the restarts before the summer electricity peak, despite a possible public backlash, as nuclear power accounted for more than 25 percent of the nation's electricity generation, prior to the Fukushima meltdowns.

In terms of new safety protocols the NRA said Thursday that none of the 48 reactors will be eligible for restart unless the new safety guidelines are met. These include the plant's operators installing technical measures to comprehensively counter accidents including, but not limited to, core meltdowns in reactors, as well as measures to counter effects of severe seismic activity and huge tsunamis -- the latter of which caused key cooling functions at the Fukushima plant to be knocked out, which led to the disastrous meltdowns.

Since the Fukushima disaster, Kyushu Electric, which also operates the Genkai nuclear power station 125 kilometers north of Nagasaki and provides electricity to seven southern prefectures, has posted combined losses of around 4.87 billion U.S. dollars and along with four of Japan's regional utilities, namely Kansai Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co., Hokkaido Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric, applied in July for the NRA's new safety checks.

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