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Analysis: Nuclear watchdog's green light for Takahama reactors a threat to '40-year rule'

In putting together what is essentially a passing grade for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the Takahama Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture -- which have been in operation for over 40 years -- to further extend their operation, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) could be signaling a trend of brushing aside what is supposed to be a general rule of decommissioning reactors after 40 years of service.

Applications to have the NRA screen the two reactors for extensions were made in March last year. They were among the later applications on the list, numbering 22nd and 23rd. But the NRA has held evaluations on the two reactors nearly every week since last fall, and they have become the sixth and seventh to have rough drafts of their evaluations approved.

This preferential treatment is irregular when considering that other nuclear reactors have been waiting over 2 1/2 years for their evaluation results.

Speeding up evaluations of the Takahama plant reactors paved the way for the NRA to beat a legal time limit that would require the reactors to be shut down if they weren't approved for extension by July this year.

Should the NRA's evaluation have dragged on past this time limit, it might have been sued by the reactors' owner, Kansai Electric Power Co.

The government wants to avoid older reactors being shut down so it can keep to its policy of having nuclear power account for 20 to 22 percent of Japan's power supply in fiscal 2030. However, an extension of reactor operations by up to 20 years beyond their designated operational life of 40 years is supposed to be limited to "exceptions."

At a press conference in 2012 right after the NRA's establishment, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka commented, "It would be quite hard to get a 20-year extension." But after only 11 months of evaluation, the possibility of such an extension has come forward for the Takahama reactors. The Takahama case could serve as a springboard for more reactors to bypass the "40-year rule" on decommissioning.

The 40-year-rule was put together in the Diet to reduce the nation's dependence on nuclear power in the wake of the lessons learned from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster. It may be time for the NRA to return to the spirit of that original initiative.

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