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Nuclear regulator does dizzying U-turn on TEPCO reactor restart plans

From left, the No. 5, 6 and 7 reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant are seen in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, in this April 21, 2016 file photo. (Mainichi)

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the utility responsible for the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and its March 2011 triple meltdown, is aiming to get the reactors at its other power plants back on line.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which must approve any restarts, had been holding to a very strict line on TEPCO applications. However, on Sept. 6 the NRA abruptly changed track, taking a more sympathetic attitude and indicating that the No. 6 and 7 reactors at the utility's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture would likely pass their safety inspections -- a prerequisite for restart approval.

Despite the NRA's suddenly sunny attitude, the prefectural government has not budged from its more cautious position. And TEPCO, which has made the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant a chief pillar of its business recovery plans, cannot flip the reactors' "on" switch without the prefecture's imprimatur, meaning the plant still has no clear restart schedule.

When the NRA summoned TEPCO President Tomoaki Kobayakawa and other top managers on July 10 this year to testify on the utility's competence to keep running nuclear plants, authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka was unequivocal and unforgiving.

Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka speaks to the Mainichi Shimbun during an Aug. 29, 2017 interview. (Mainichi)

"If TEPCO is unwilling or unable to finalize the decommissioning of the Fukushima (No. 1 station) reactors, it is simply not qualified to restart the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant," Tanaka told the executives, adding, "I don't see TEPCO showing any independent initiative whatsoever."

The NRA chairman was referring to the longstanding problems with contaminated water and radioactive waste disposal plaguing TEPCO's Fukushima plant decommissioning efforts. The utility tends to focus too much on trying to read the government's mind on any and all Fukushima issues -- an attitude that has long drawn NRA criticism.

When the NRA inspected the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant's No. 6 and 7 reactors, it added a new evaluation category to the usual technological checklist, though it was not part of the new safety standards: "eligibility." That is, TEPCO's eligibility to run a nuclear power plant at all. After all, it was one of TEPCO's plants that had succumbed to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. "TEPCO is different from other (power) companies," Tanaka had said.

TEPCO President Kobayakawa and Chairman Takashi Kawamura are also a source of NRA concern. The two had no role in the utility's response to the 2011 meltdowns, and Kobayakawa replaced a much more experienced hand in Naomi Hirose, a TEPCO managing director when the disaster struck. After his NRA dressing-down in July, Kobayakawa apparently visited the Fukushima disaster zone seven times.

However, there has been an apparent U-turn in Tanaka's stance. A document submitted on Aug. 25 to the NRA under Kobayakawa's name was sewn with phrases like, "We will carry the (Fukushima) reactor decommissioning through to the end," and other terms suggesting a determined TEPCO attitude. At the same time, the document was bereft of details on specific preparedness measures or progress benchmarks for the decommissioning work.

Nevertheless, when Kobayakawa again appeared before the NRA on Aug. 30, the body indicated its acceptance of TEPCO's position. Taking the contaminated water problem "as one example," Tanaka stated that he recognized TEPCO's lack of concrete countermeasure planning couldn't be helped under the circumstances. One NRA executive revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun, "We avoided demanding a detailed (disposal measures) plan because we don't legally have that authority, and doing so could pose legal risks."

Pro-TEPCO sentiment was on conspicuous display when the NRA met again on Sept. 6, including acting Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa's declaration that he "felt TEPCO's drive to pass on the lessons of the (Fukushima nuclear) accident."

Committee member Nobuhiko Ban stated that while the document the utility had submitted in the summer was a "declaration of intent," he was "concerned over whether this alone can constitute eligibility" to run a nuclear plant. However, Tanaka wrapped up discussion by saying that "circumstances are not such that we can deny (TEPCO's) eligibility."

Tanaka will leave his NRA post on Sept. 18 after completing his five-year term in the chairmanship, and at a post-meeting news conference he was asked if he had wanted to bring the TEPCO issue to a close while in office.

"I can't say that I've never felt that way," Tanaka replied.

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