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Nuclear regulator defers giving safety OK for idle Tepco reactors

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's nuclear safety watchdog on Wednesday deferred giving safety clearance for two idle Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. reactors on the Sea of Japan coast, although its chairman said the utility was "qualified" as a nuclear plant operator.

    Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said following Wednesday's meeting that Tepco, operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, was qualified but needs to stipulate its resolve to ensure safe operation of nuclear plants in its safety rules.

    "It's insecure" if Tepco expresses its resolve to ensure safety only in words, Tanaka told a press conference.

    Safety rules need to be approved by the regulator and if there is a grave violation the regulator can demand that the utility halt nuclear power operations.

    The regulator will formally inform the utility's president, Tomoaki Kobayakawa, about the matter on Sept. 20. A final decision on whether Tepco is fit to be an operator will be made following discussions with the economy, trade and industry minister.

    If Tepco agrees to include its resolve to ensure safety in its safety rules, the regulator will compile a draft document for the Nos. 6 and 7 reactors at Tepco's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture that will serve as certification that the utility has satisfied new safety requirements implemented since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

    The regulator had been expected at Wednesday's meeting to confirm that the units have cleared the new safety requirements, but it reversed course after facing criticism over a lack of debate on whether the operator is fit to run a nuclear power plant.

    For a reactor to be restarted, it first needs to clear the stiffer safety requirements introduced in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which was triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Tepco filed for safety assessments of the two units in September 2013.

    According to sources close to the matter, the regulator had planned to give safety clearance while Tanaka was still on the board. Tanaka's term expires on Sept. 18, although he will continue to work until Sept. 22.

    The regulator had reached a near consensus on the issue of Tepco's qualification when its members previously met on Sept. 6.

    During the summer, the regulator questioned the Tepco management, including Kobayakawa, about its nuclear safety awareness. In July, Tanaka criticized Tepco's attitude, saying, "An operator, which cannot take concrete measures for decommissioning efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, does not have the right to resume operation of nuclear reactors."

    Tanaka urged the utility to further explain in writing issues such as how to deal with contaminated water at the Fukushima plant.

    While Tepco, in its subsequent written response, did not give details about what it would do regarding the contaminated water, it did pledge to see through the scrapping of the plant, gaining a certain level of understanding from the regulator.

    Meanwhile, the prospect of gaining local consent needed for the restart of the two reactors remains uncertain, with Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama saying it will take "around three to four years" for the utility to win local consent for the envisioned restart.

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