At a quiet end-of-year meeting, Japan’s nuclear power regulators recently gave the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) official permission to restart two of its nuclear reactors on the Sea of Japan coast – reactors which have been idle for the better part of ten years.
This was not the first time the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) had approved a restart – it has okayed 12 reactors, owned by four utilities, since coming into being in 2013. But it was the first time the authorities had openly questioned a utility’s competence to operate a reactor – any reactor.
The authority added “eligibility” to its list of concerns – meaning Tepco’s eligibility to run a nuclear plant. “Tepco is different from other power companies,” said former chairman Shunichi Tanaka.
Tepco isn’t just any utility. It owned and operated the four reactors destroyed in the March 11, 2011 “triple disaster” of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima prefecture. It also owns seven undamaged reactors on the opposite side of Japan, which it desperately wants to begin producing power – and revenue – to offset its enormous liabilities.
The nuclear authority’s actions are the first approvals it has extended to operators of boiling water reactors, or BWRs – the same type of reactor that suffered multiple meltdowns in the Fukushima accident. BWRs also have some safety concerns that are unique to them. About half of Japan’s 40-odd currently-operable nuclear power plants are BWRs.
The seven Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plants on the Sea of Japan coast constitute the largest commercial nuclear power complex in the world. Each is capable of producing enough electricity to light up a small city. They were shut down after the 2007 earthquake and then shut down again after 3/11.
Tepco’s management is eager – to say the least – to get at least the two reactors (Units 6 and 7) approved and on-line in order to produce revenues that will offset the massive compensation payments stemming from the disaster, and to cover the cost of imported fossil fuels.
Returning at least two reactors to operations would yield about 200 billion yen (US$1.8 billion) in added revenues. It has been a part of the utility’s business plan almost from the time of the accident, without much expectation – until late last month – that it could be realized.
Tepco’s President Tomoaki Kobayakawa testified before the authority several times last summer, reassuring the commissioners of Tepco’s commitment to safety. He also said he would see the decommissioning of the Fukushima plants “through to the end.”
“It seems Tepco’s response on competency is to shift the focus to ‘financial competency’”
He turned the question of competence around by insisting that his utility needs the revenue from operating the two K-K plants so that it can fulfill its responsibilities to the Fukushima safety and decommissioning project.
“It seems Tepco’s response on competency is to shift the focus to ‘financial competency,’” said Caitlin Stronell of the Citizens Nuclear Information Center. In any event, the authority seemed persuaded enough to give a green light to a restart, despite the lingering fears from the Fukushima disaster.
Tepco says approximately 6,000 staff and contract workers are laboring at the Kashiwazaki plant, or almost as many workers as are employed in the decommissioning activities at Fukushima. Among other safety features, they have erected a 50 meter-high seawall to guard against future tsunamis.
Hydrogen re-combiners have been installed to prevent a repeat of the hydrogen explosions that rocked the Fukushima Daiichi units. They have also stored 20,000 tons of water in a nearby hilltop reservoir to provide cooling water using gravity, rather than diesel pumps, to keep cores from melting in any loss-of-coolant accident.
Tepco’s operations on the Sea of Japan were compromised in 2007, when the site was hit by the Chuetsu Earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter Scale.
That earthquake caused relatively little structural damage and never came close to a Fukushima-style meltdown. However, it was discovered that the severity of the quake exceeded the design criteria, which resulted in a lengthy shutdown for all seven reactors as Tepco struggled to meet stricter rules.
The utility was in the process of bringing three reactors back on-line when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011, putting the big seven out of operation once again and eventually shutting down all of Japan’s commercial reactors.
Successive governors of Niigata prefecture have taken a very cautious position on restarting any of the K-K plants. Three-term Governor Hirohiko Izumida always maintained that he would not approve any restart until the exact causes of the Fukushima disaster are fully known. His recently elected successor, Ryuichi Yomeyama, has the same policy.
This will continue to be an issue for Tepco, for in this area of policy, the national government follows the advice of the governor.