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Tepco nuclear reactors pass safety review, 1st after Fukushima crisis

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 (Kyodo) -- Two reactors Japan were cleared for reactivation by the nuclear regulator on Wednesday, becoming the first run by the operator of the crippled Fukushima power plant to formally clear stricter government safety standards imposed after the 2011 crisis.

    The Nuclear Regulation Authority endorsed safety measures for the Nos. 6 and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture at a meeting that was open to the public, with some members of the audience shouting their disapproval. The decision paves the way for the restart of the two reactors by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., known as Tepco.

    However, the process of reactivating the reactors straddling the municipalities of Kashiwazaki and Kariwa in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast could still take several more years as local governments need to give their consent.

    Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama, who has said it will take "at least three to four years" before he can decide on whether to approve the restart of the reactors, issued a statement saying he wants to be briefed on the plan and "examine the outcome of (the NRA) review."

    The two units are boiling water reactors, the same as those that suffered meltdowns during the Fukushima crisis triggered by the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. No BWRs had previously cleared Japan's tougher safety standards imposed after the disaster, partly because major refurbishments are required for added safety.

    The NRA's approval of the two units brings the total number of reactors that have cleared the post-crisis safety regulations to 14, with the Japanese government pushing to restart nuclear plants that were taken offline after the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

    In addition to assessing the usual technical requirements, the NRA focused on whether Tepco is qualified to operate a nuclear power plant, as it continues to struggle with scrapping the Fukushima Daiichi complex -- an effort expected to take until around 2051 -- and dealing with contaminated water at the plant where radiation levels remain high.

    Of around 800 public comments received by the regulator regarding its assessment of the Tepco reactors, about half of them questioned Tepco's qualification to run nuclear plants, according to the NRA.

    At Wednesday's meeting, some of the members of the public voiced opposition, with one person saying, "It is not a technical or scientific assessment, but a political one."

    In front of the building housing the NRA in Tokyo, civic group members gathered to protest the approval.

    Yoshinari Usui, a forgmer public official from Kawasaki near Tokyo, said, "Tepco has no technical qualifications to run a nuclear power plant after causing such an accident. The restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa units is totally unacceptable."

    Han Kumata, 37, from Tokyo said, "I have absolutely no trust in Tepco even if it says it has implemented safety measures."

    As a condition for gaining safety clearance, Tepco agreed to a request from the regulator to provide a safety pledge in its legally binding plant operation program.

    The NRA says it can continue to monitor Tepco by conducting inspections and order the halt of operations if it finds any safety violations.

    Facing huge compensation payments and other costs stemming from the Fukushima crisis, Tepco has been keen to resume operation of its reactors to reduce dependence on costly fossil fuel imports for non-nuclear thermal power generation.

    Not all residents of Niigata oppose nuclear power, given its economic benefits.

    "There may be risks but the local (municipality) cannot stand without nuclear power. I want the reactors to be restarted if they have been deemed safe," said Toru Murata from Kashiwazaki, who works in the construction industry.

    A Niigata city resident Mie Kuwabara, 69, on the other hand expressed concern about the reactors coming back online, saying, "I think the possibility of a serious accident still remains," considering past problems at the plant including insufficient quake resistance of a building to be used as an emergency headquarters.

    The two reactors are the newest among the seven units at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. The complex is one of the world's largest nuclear power plants, with a combined output capacity of 8.2 million kilowatts.

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