SAGA, Japan (Kyodo) -- A nuclear reactor at the Genkai power plant in southwestern Japan resumed operation Friday for the first time in over seven years, amid lingering concerns among residents about evacuating from islets near the plant in the event of a serious accident.
Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s No. 3 unit at the plant in Saga Prefecture was halted for a regular inspection in December 2010, three months before a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The reactor cleared safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in January 2017 under stricter, post-Fukushima crisis regulations and was later approved for reactivation by the Genkai municipal government and Saga prefectural government. It became the seventh reactor in Japan to restart under the stricter regulations.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which views nuclear power as an "important base-load power source," is promoting the restart of nuclear reactors considered safe by the regulator.
Local residents, particularly those living on 17 islands within 30 kilometers of the Genkai plant, are concerned about how to evacuate in the event of an accident as there are no bridges connecting the islets with the main island of Kyushu.
Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko welcomed the resumption saying, "(The restart) holds significance from the point of promoting so-called pluthermal power generation and recycling nuclear fuel."
The Genkai plant's No. 3 reactor generates power using mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, which is created from plutonium and uranium extracted from spent fuel.
Early Friday, a group of about 100 citizens gathered in front of the Genkai plant, protesting against the resumption and calling for the shutdowns of all nuclear plants in Japan.
Chuji Nakayama, a 70-year-old man who lives on Iki Island in Nagasaki Prefecture within about a 30-kilometer radius of the plant, expressed anger, saying, "How can islanders escape if an accident occurs?"
Kenichi Arakawa, the deputy chief of an anti-nuclear group who lives in Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, said, "An accident could deprive nearby residents of everything in their lives. We should not operate a nuclear plant that threatens our lives."
Meanwhile, a 70-year-old man from the town of Genkai said, "The town will finally become vibrant again because the nuclear plant helped set up roads and create jobs while bringing in more people."
Kyushu Electric plans to start commercial operation of the No. 3 Genkai unit in late April. It is the third reactor reactivated by the utility, following the Nos. 1 and 2 units at the Sendai complex in Kagoshima Prefecture, which came back online in 2015.
The operator also plans to restart the No. 4 unit at the Genkai plant in May, after that unit passed an NRA safety assessment in January 2017.