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Despite NRA's OK, restarting reactors in Niigata Pref. still nowhere in sight

From left, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa, and commissioners Satoru Tanaka and Nobuhiko Ban are seen at a meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 4, 2017, on screening the No. 6 and No. 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. (Mainichi)

Irrespective of Japan's nuclear watchdog giving a green light to restarting two idled reactors at a nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc., there are no clear prospects in sight as to when they will be reactivated as the utility has to win approval by the host prefecture and city.

"I'm in no position to object to the screening done by the state. In return, the (safety) verification that the prefectural government is going to carry out is not something to be objected to by the state," Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama told reporters on Oct. 4 following the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA)'s endorsement of a draft document that says the No. 6 and No. 7 rectors at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant meet new safety standards. The NRA now bears grave responsibility as it has effectively approved the utility responsible for the worst nuclear accident in Japanese history to operate a nuclear power station again.

Yoneyama's "safety verification" refers to the three-point check proposed by the governor. Yoneyama, who assumed office after winning the 2016 gubernatorial election for the first time with the backing of the Japanese Communist Party and other anti-nuclear power groups, remains cautious about restarting idled nuclear reactors, saying that unless the following three points are examined by the prefectural government -- the cause of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, potential effects on people's livelihoods as well as health in case of an accident and safe evacuation measures -- he cannot even accept to have a discussion on the restart.

The reason Yoneyama attaches importance to these verification points is because he believes that the NRA's screening focuses on the nuclear plant's hardware such as the safety of buildings and equipment but disregards the potential effects on local residents' livelihoods and their health should an accident occur or the legitimacy of evacuation plans. As local residents' sense of distrust of nuclear plants and TEPCO still remain strong, the governor has no choice but to be cautious about allowing the utility to restart the reactors.

At the same time, two out of three committees tasked to work on the verification were just launched in September, and discussions on concrete subjects for examination have not started. In addition, the selection of members for the general overview board, which is supposed to organize the three committees, has not been completed.

Gov. Yoneyama has indicated his intention to make a decision on the restart of the nuclear plant a key issue in the next gubernatorial election scheduled for 2020, meaning that the timing of restarting the idled reactors is absolutely nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, Masahiro Sakurai, mayor of the nuclear plant host city of Kashiwazaki, who was previously more moderate toward nuclear power policies than Yoneyama, has hardened his stance after it was learned that TEPCO failed to report to the NRA about the inadequate earthquake resistance of a building supposed to work as a hub in a nuclear accident. In July this year, Sakurai told TEPCO to re-evaluate its business model of having seven nuclear reactors concentrated at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant as a condition for approving the restart of the No. 6 and 7 reactors. He emphasized during a news conference on Oct. 4 that he would be "demanding TEPCO submit plans to decommission the No. 1 to No. 5 reactors within two years."

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