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Utilities welcome court ruling green-lighting Ikata reactor restart, but risks remain

Shikoku Electric Power Co. Managing Director Isao Kobayashi, left, holds a press conference after a Hiroshima High Court decision approving the restart of the utility's nuclear reactor in Ikata, Ehime Prefecture, at Shikoku Electric headquarters in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, on Sept. 25, 2018 (Mainichi/Kunihiro Iwasaki)

The Hiroshima High Court decision on Sept. 25 giving Shikoku Electric Power Co. the go-ahead to restart the No. 3 reactor of its Ikata Nuclear Power Station was welcomed by utilities, but the risk that nuclear plants could be shut down by judicial action and affect management decisions by power companies remains.

"It's a positive outcome for power companies facing similar lawsuits," said a senior official of a major electric power utility about the ruling. The decision came after Kansai Electric Power Co. won a decision in July allowing the restart of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of the Oi Nuclear Power Station in the central Japan town of Oi, Fukui Prefecture.

Kansai Electric has four reactors running at its plants in Fukui, and has six more lawsuits before the courts. But President Shigeki Iwane has repeatedly stated that winning the suits one by one will reduce the risk of future lawsuits.

But an individual associated with a major power company said the power industry cannot lower its guard against judicial decisions critical of nuclear power generation. "Court decisions differ wildly depending on judges. We have to be always prepared" for negative rulings, said the individual.

The cost for nuclear power production is rising as utilities must invest in measures to prevent damage from natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In the case of Kansai Electric, the company needed a total of 894.4 billion yen as of July 2018 to enhance safety measures at its seven nuclear reactors. Such measures are required after the March 2011 triple core meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Station in northeastern Japan.

A senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said that nuclear power plants still run the risk of being suspended due to legal decisions. "Some power utilities may think that it is too costly to keep nuclear plants," the official said, acknowledging the tough environment surrounding the industry.

Meanwhile, senior Shikoku Electric officials welcomed the high court's decision at a press conference in the western Japan city of Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture.

"It was an appropriate decision. It validated our argument that the safety of the No. 3 reactor is ensured," said managing director Isao Kobayashi. Senior officials of the power utility appeared relieved, as Ikata is the only nuclear plant the company owns, and its operation substantially affects the management of the entire company.

The No. 3 reactor, capable of generating 890,000 kilowatts of electricity, is the largest power production facility under Shikoku Electric. When it is offline, the company has to pay an additional 3.5 billion yen every month for power generation. The company will have accumulated extra bills totaling 30 billion yen by the end of September because the reactor has been offline since a December 2017 Hiroshima High Court injunction. The decision ordered the suspension of the facility out of safety concerns due to potential catastrophic volcanic eruptions from a major volcano west of the facility. The company's current profit as of March 2018 was only 28 billion yen, and the utility cannot ignore the additional cost.

Shikoku Electric still faces multiple lawsuits filed by residents and others around the Ikata facility seeking to keep the No. 3 reactor out of service. The Oita District Court is set to issue its decision in one of the suits on Sept. 28.

Kobayashi called into question before reporters the current system that allows even a single lawsuit won by residents to stop a nuclear reactor, "but we are confident our argument will be accepted," he added.

(Japanese original by Shinsaku Mano, Osaka Business News Department; Takayuki Hakamada and Kenji Wada, Business News Department; and Koichi Uematsu and Kunihiro Iwasaki, Takamatsu Bureau)

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