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Governor to approve restart of 40-plus-year-old nuclear reactors in Japan first

From bottom left, the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, currently under decommissioning process, and the No. 3 reactor, top right, are seen at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Mihama Nuclear Power Station in the town of Mihama, Fukui Prefecture, on Oct. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

FUKUI -- The governor of central Japan's Fukui Prefecture announced on April 28 his intention to approve the reactivation of 40-plus-year-old nuclear reactors following an online meeting with the economy minister. If the move goes ahead, it would be the first time in Japan for such aging reactors to be restarted.

    Fukui Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto spoke with Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama online on April 27 and confirmed the central government's nuclear power policy, including plans to reboot the No. 3 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Mihama Nuclear Power Station in the prefectural town of Mihama and the No. 1 and 2 reactors at the Takahama station in the prefectural town of Takahama -- both of which are over 40 years old since they were put online.

    Following the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Japan decided to set the operating period of a nuclear rector at 40 years as a general rule. That period can be extended for up to 20 years as a one-time only exception if the Nuclear Regulation Authority approves.

    Economy minister Kajiyama told Gov. Sugimoto, "As the national government, we're going to move forward with our nuclear policy responsibly." In response, Sugimoto said, "I would like to ask for government-wide efforts so that we could be a model case for nuclear plant host regions facing challenges from 40-plus-year-old (reactors)." Following the meeting, the governor told reporters, "Though it wasn't perfect, I heard from the minister that he is determined and prepared. I will announce my decision at tomorrow's news conference."

    From left in the foreground, the No. 1 and 2 reactors, currently undergoing steps toward restarting despite their operating periods of over 40 years, are seen at Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama Nuclear Power Station in the Fukui Prefecture town of Takahama, on Oct. 20, 2020. The No. 3 and 4 reactors in the background are online. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

    As a rule, consensus from host municipalities and prefectures is needed to restart a reactor. The Mihama and Takahama municipal governments, as well as their respective town assemblies have already agreed to restart the aging reactors. The Fukui prefectural nuclear safety commission tasked with checking the safety of nuclear plants has compiled a report on the assessment of Kansai Electric's safety measures and submitted it to Gov. Sugimoto on April 22.

    On April 21, the largest legislative group Liberal Democratic Party at the prefectural assembly announced its intention to respect the governor's decision on the matter. Sugimoto had said during an assembly question-answer session, "I need to speak directly with the economy minister as governor to hear (the government's) commitment," suggesting that he would finalize his decision after his meeting with Kajiyama.

    The prefectural government had indicated that, as a condition for approving the restart of aging reactors, Kansai Electric present candidate locations outside Fukui Prefecture for interim storage sites for spent nuclear fuel. In February this year, Gov. Sugimoto expressed his appreciation over the utility's proposal to secure a location "by the end of 2023," including the shared use of a storage site in the Aomori Prefecture city of Mutsu in northern Japan.

    The governor then practically shelved resolving the issue of interim storage sites and requested that the prefectural assembly debate the potential restart of the aging reactors. The central government had presented additional aid programs on April 6, including the provision of up to 2.5 billion yen (about $23 million) per nuclear station which is older than 40 years -- in the cases of Mihama and Takahama stations, the subsidy will total 5 billion yen (roughly $46 million). With this, Fukui Prefecture entered the final stage of building local consensus for rebooting the idled reactors.

    Fukui Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto is seen speaking to reporters following an online meeting with Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama at the Fukui Prefectural Government headquarters in the city of Fukui, on April 27, 2021. (Mainichi/Chika Yokomi)

    Meanwhile, local residents have voiced concerns over the safety of long-running reactors and evacuation routes in the event of an accident, among other issues.

    The No. 1 and 2 reactors at the Takahama station went online in November 1974 and November 1975, respectively, while the No. 3 reactor at the Mihama plant began running in December 1976. If these more-than-40-year-old reactors were put back online, they would be the first cases after Japan set the "40-year principle with an up to 20-year extension" for nuclear plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

    Kansai Electric will begin full-fledged preparations as soon as local consensus is built. However, as the construction of a specialized anti-terrorism facility, which became mandatory to reboot reactors under the new safety regulations, has been delayed, the timing of actually restarting the reactors remains undecided.

    The Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai No. 2 Power Station in the Ibaraki Prefecture village of Tokai in east Japan, which is also more than 40 years old, has been given the green light by the national government for an extension, but the utility has not been able to get consensus from the local community.

    (Japanese original by Riki Iwama, Fukui Bureau)

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