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High court backs restart of halted Takahama reactors

The No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Takahama Nuclear Power Plant, from left to right, are pictured in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, on June 15, 2016. (Mainichi)

OSAKA (Kyodo) -- A Japanese high court on Tuesday revoked a lower court order to halt two nuclear reactors at the Takahama plant on the Sea of Japan coast, accepting an appeal by the operator against the first injunction ever issued in the country to stop operating reactors.

    But it is unlikely other nuclear reactors in Japan will soon resume operating due to pending legal matters, analysts say, as fears linger among people living near nuclear facilities about their health and life.

    The decision by the Osaka High Court allows Kansai Electric Power Co. to resume operating the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, central Japan. The two reactors have been idled for around a year.

    The higher court said that quake-resistance standards were not overestimated under tougher regulations set following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and necessary measures have been taken to prevent significant damage of the reactor core.

    The decision is certain to be welcomed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has promoted the restart of nuclear reactors to bolster the economy. Japan aims to export nuclear technology abroad, while boosting nuclear power generation would save money now spent importing oil and natural gas for thermal-power generation.

    Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, said at a press conference in Tokyo, "We want Kansai Electric to put top priority on safety and make every effort to obtain understanding from the local government and others involved."

    Calling its nuclear regulations the "strictest in the world," the Abe administration looks for nuclear power to produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan's electricity by 2030.

    Kansai Electric President Shigeki Iwane said at a news conference in Osaka that the company has yet to decide when to restart the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Takahama plant, and pledged to "make safety our top priority."

    Iwane also indicated the company's electric rates would decline once the two reactors resume operating.

    Kansai Electric is likely to restart the reactors as early as late April, a source close to the matter said.

    Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who has given the go-ahead for the reactors to resume operating, told reporters the ruling is "a reasonable and clear decision."

    However, a group of residents in neighboring Shiga Prefecture who won the landmark injunction from the Otsu District Court in March last year are expected to consider countermeasures, including filing a special appeal with the Supreme Court.

    Yoshinori Tsuji, representative of the residents, said the court has "imposed an unjust ruling on us."

    Amid widespread concern about the safety of nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, the residents in Shiga filed a request with the district court in January 2015, seeking an order halting the two reactors at the plant.

    After the request was turned down, the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at the Takahama plant resumed operation in early 2016 under the new regulations, but the No. 4 reactor was automatically shut down after a problem with a generator triggered an alarm.

    On March 9, 2016, the district court ordered operation of the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors halted, casting doubt about the utility's safety measures and Japan's post-Fukushima nuclear regulations set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

    Kansai Electric shut down the No. 3 reactor the following day.

    Last June, the Otsu District Court kept its ban on operation of the two reactors. In July, Kansai Electric filed an appeal against a district court decision rejecting its request to suspend the injunction order.

    In Tuesday's decision, the Osaka High Court determined that the post-Fukushima safety measures were "not unreasonable" because they were devised on the basis of the "latest scientific and technical knowledge" that reflects lessons learned from the nuclear disaster.

    The utility has criticized the injunction, claiming it was not an objective judgment based on scientific knowledge. It also says the injunction is costing the utility 200 million to 300 million yen ($1.8 million to $2.7 million) more per day to generate power from other fuel.

    Kansai Electric removed nuclear fuel from the Takahama reactors between August and September last year given the prolonged court battle.

    As of Tuesday, only three of Japan's 42 commercial reactors nationwide are now operating -- the Nos. 1 and 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric's Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, and the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, western Japan, according to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

    On Thursday, the Hiroshima District Court is set to rule on an appeal filed to halt the operation of the No.3 reactor at the Ikata power plant, the first ruling since it resumed operations in August last year.

    Last year, the Fukuoka High Court rejected an appeal by local residents against a lower court decision the previous year allowing the restart of the two reactors at the Sendai plant.

    The issue of whether to restart nuclear facilities, meanwhile, has often dominated gubernatorial elections across Japan in recent years, in which some anti-nuclear candidates have been elected.

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