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Conflict looms over right of local municipalities to nix Tokai nuke plant restart

The idled Tokai No. 2 Power Station, right, and the Tokai Power Station that is being decommissioned, are seen in this file photo taken in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on July 17, 2018. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

MITO -- A gap has emerged between the operator of an idled nuclear plant in the eastern Japan prefecture of Ibaraki and six municipalities hosting or surrounding the complex over whether the local bodies have the right to disapprove reactivation of the reactor.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on Nov. 7 approved extending operations of the single reactor at Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai No. 2 Power Station by 20 years past its 40-year standard service life. The government nuclear regulator made the decision after the nuclear plant passed three inspections, including one to see if the complex meets the new regulatory standards introduced in the wake of the March 2011 outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Under the decision, Japan Atomic could continue operating the Tokai No. 2 station in the village of Tokai until Nov. 27, 2038. Attention is now focused on whether the village of Tokai and five surrounding municipalities will agree to the reactor's restart.

Japan Atomic signed safety agreements on the plant with the six municipalities in March this year. The agreements state that restart of the reactor "effectively requires approval in prior consultations" with the municipalities concerned. However, the accord does not clarify whether a restart can be stopped if the municipalities don't all agree. Japan Atomic and the municipalities held the consultations for the conclusion of the accords behind closed doors, and the minutes have been withheld.

Japan Atomic Executive Vice President Nobutaka Wachi told reporters on Nov. 7, "The new agreements don't contain the phrase, 'the right to disapprove.'"

Meanwhile, the mayors of the six municipalities are divided over the matter.

Toru Umino, mayor of Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, reiterated his opposition to reactivation of the Tokai No. 2 power plant, citing difficulties compiling an evacuation plan covering the 14 municipalities within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant. Combined, these municipalities have a population of some 960,000.

"I am of the understanding that the plant can't be restarted if even one of the municipalities' mayors is opposed," Umino said. This view is shared by Hitachinaka Mayor Motoki Honma, who has announced his intention to retire.

However, Tokai Mayor Osamu Yamada denied that the safety agreements have granted the local bodies the right to disapprove reactivation.

Among the other municipal leaders, Mito Mayor Yasushi Takahashi and Hitachiota Mayor Taichi Okubo are of the view that the municipalities have the right to disapprove reactivation, while Hitachi Mayor Haruki Ogawa disagrees.

Meanwhile, there is as yet no fixed timeframe for deciding whether to reactivate the reactor.

Japan Atomic plans to spend some 180 billion yen on structural reinforcement work by March 2021 to enhance the Tokai No. 2 plant's safety. The mayors of the six municipalities held consultations behind closed doors on Oct. 1 and agreed to urge the company to clarify its plant restart plan. The mayors will hold talks again in response to the NRA's latest decision. However, the mayors are divided over their evaluation of the reinforcement work.

"Reactivation doesn't have to be stopped if the safety will be enhanced by installing a storm surge barrier and taking other measures," said Tokai Mayor Yamada.

Some others have voiced concerns that "reactivation could be a fait accompli."

(Japanese original by Takuya Yoshida, Keisuke Ota and Sakae Kato, Mito Bureau)

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