Japan's nuclear safety watchdog on Wednesday deferred giving safety clearance to two idle reactors of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., while further assessing the utility's qualification as a nuclear plant operator.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority was expected to determine that Units 6 and 7 of Tepco's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture have cleared new safety requirements, but faced criticism over a lack of debate on whether the operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is fit to run a nuclear power plant.
For a reactor to be restarted, it first needs to clear stiffer safety requirements introduced in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which was triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Tepco filed for safety assessments of the two units in September 2013.
According to sources close to the matter, the regulator had planned to give safety clearance while departing Chairman Shunichi Tanaka was still on board, but it reversed course after criticism arose about the lack of debate on Tepco's qualification.
Tanaka's term expires on Sept. 18, although he will continue to work until Sept. 22.
The regulator decided during Wednesday's meeting that Tepco should reference its resolve to ensure safety in operating nuclear plants in its safety rules. It will inform the utility's president, Tomoaki Kobayakawa, about the matter.
A final decision on whether Tepco is fit to be an operator will be made following discussions with the economy, trade and industry minister.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority had reached a near consensus on the issue of Tepco's qualification when its members previously met on Sept. 6.
During the summer, the regulator questioned the Tepco management, including Kobayakawa, about its nuclear safety awareness. In July, Tanaka criticized Tepco's attitude, saying, "An operator, who cannot take concrete measures to decommissioning efforts of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, does not have the right to resume operation of nuclear reactors."
Tanaka urged the utility to submit more explanation in writing on issues such as how to deal with contaminated water.
While Tepco, in its subsequent written response, did not give details on what to do with contaminated water, it did pledge to see the scrapping of the plant to the end, thus gaining a certain level of understanding from the regulator.
Meanwhile, the prospect of gaining local consent needed for the restart of the two reactors remains uncertain, with Niigata Gov. Ryuichi Yoneyama saying it will take "around three to four years" for the utility to win local consent on the envisioned restart.
© Kyodo News International, Inc., source Newswire