The government is accelerating plans to give it’s the official nod to the restart of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Ohi plant in Fukui Prefecture after the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission approved the results of Kansai Electric’s first-stage stress tests on the two reactors in March.
Earlier this week on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Noda instructed Economy minister Yukio Edano to draft nuclear safety standards before judging whether to restart reactors 3 and 4 of the nuclear plant at Oi in Fukui Prefecture.
Despite having only held their third meeting, as of Thursday the Japanese central government have drafted, adopted, and generally endorsed new nuclear safety standards in record time.
The Japanese government is expected to take action on the new agreement following a meeting on Friday pending some modification on the wording of the draft by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. However, there is no need to restart the reactors if the region has sufficient power, or if energy-saving measures can sufficiently reduce power consumption.
Edano is expected to ask the operator of the Ohi plant, Kansai Electric Power Company, to ensure that the facility meets the standards.
Edano also plans to ask the utility to draw up a timeline to implement the standards. The 4 ministers are to meet on Friday after the utility hands in its reply to the requests.
The government regards the new standards as a precondition for restarting 2 Ohi reactors, but a government official told reporters earlier in the day that the same safety standards apply to other reactors across Japan.
Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano is perhaps most famous for having stated at a news conference only two days after the March 11th disaster that, “There is no risk to inhabitants of the area [Fukushima].”
Edano has repeatedly stated that if areas can produce enough electricity without nuclear power, he will not approve restarts even if the extra safety criteria are met.
“It is the direction (of this Cabinet) to reduce nuclear power dependence as much as possible, so if there is a sufficient power supply or we can survive with a small amount of power conservation, it is natural not to restart reactors,” he said.
Despite growing public opposition to nuclear power, the government is trying to restart the reactors with more and more urgency.
The move which is perceived by much of the country as “hasty” has potentially undermined the future effectiveness of other recommendations for restart, which all hinge on this critical issue.
The untimely moves to restart idle reactors could prompt a backlash against an already unpopular government and ruling party ahead of an election that could come later this year as most of Japan has adopted an anti-nuclear stance.
No vote for parliament’s lower house is mandated until 2013 but speculation is rising that Prime Minister Noda may call a rush election over tax reform issues.
In February, The Yomiuri newspaper, citing government sources, said that the Japanese government intended to restart the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co’s Ohi plant in Fukui prefecture, before the last active reactor in Japan is due to shut by the end of April for regular maintenance.
Japanese Economy and Trade Minister Yukio Edano adamantly denied the reports and stated that the government had not set deadlines to resume operations at nuclear reactors after a media report said the government aimed to restart two reactors around April.
“The only standard is whether we can gain a certain level of understanding from the locals and the public,” Edano said.
The locals and the public in this case have warned the newly drafted nuclear safety standards do not address some of the most pertinent issues related to nuclear energy after Fukushima.
The main concern of the Fukui governor has been the fact that he has repeatedly asked for further clarification on such standards as well as the stress tests, yet no clarification has been given, and the central government has repeatedly stepped up the pressure on local governments to accept the national safety standards unilaterally.
Prime Minister Noda has sent Economy minister Edano to explain to Fukui Governor Issei Nishikawa that the safety of the reactors has been confirmed and seek support for the restart, according to the sources.
Other prefectures surrounding Fukui have also expressed grave concern over how people living within 30 km of Fukui’s four commercial nuclear power plants would be evacuated.
It is impossible to guarantee the safety of any nuclear power facility, when at the same time the Japanese government cannot even guarantee the safe storage of contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi, after over 12 tons of radioactive water contaminated with radioactive strontium leaked into the Pacific Ocean this week.
The leak occurred when a pipe broke off from a joint while the water was being filtered for cesium, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.
The officials have been forced to delay any decision restart the Ohi so far, as they are constantly hounded and opposed by local citizens who are unhappy with the idea of seeing the reactors back online, even if they passed the so-called stress-tests.
There is something altogether unnerving about safety standards which are admittedly adapted not primarily for safety’s sake, as government officials and even the IAEA have long promoted the safety and restart of the Oi reactors, but rather to convince host communities and the public of the safety of nuclear plants.
There are multiple safety issues that need to be readdressed prior to any restart, enlarging emergency evacuation zones, expanding potassium iodide distribution, and speeding up the transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry casks, should be considered some of the most important areas of concern.
The Japanese officials are not moving efficiently enough to safeguard the nation’s nuclear power fleet from catastrophic accidents like the one at Fukushima Japan, rather are seeking a quick cheap fix for safety.
Japanese officials are concerned that if all of the nation’s nuclear power plants are shut down, that the rising sentiment in the island nation will prevent any of the commercial reactors to start once again.
“They want to avoid setting a precedent of the country operating without nuclear power because it will create a huge barrier in terms of restarts,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.
“People will question why we need it,” he said.
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