The operator of Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been given initial approval to restart reactors at another atomic facility, marking the first step towards the firm’s return to nuclear power generation more than six years after the March 2011 triple meltdown.
Japan’ s nuclear regulator on Wednesday approved an application from Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) to restart two reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa – the world’s biggest nuclear power plant – even as the utility struggles to decommission Fukushima Daiichi.
The process will involve reviews and consultations with the public, and the restart is also expected to encounter strong opposition from people living near the plant on the Japan Sea coast of Niigata prefecture.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) ruled that the No 6 and No 7 reactors, each with a capacity of 1,356 megawatts, met stringent new safety standards introduced after the Fukushima disaster. The authority’s five commissioners voted unanimously to approve the restarts at a meeting on Wednesday.
The decision drew criticism from anti-nuclear campaigners.
Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, accused the NRA of being reckless.
He added: “It is the same disregard for nuclear risks that resulted in Tepco’s 2011 triple reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi site. Approving the safety of reactors at the world’s largest nuclear plant when it is at extreme risk from major earthquakes completely exposes the weakness of Japan’s nuclear regulator.”
Greenpeace said 23 seismic faultlines ran through the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa site.
Tepco said in a statement that it took the regulatory authority’s decision seriously and would continue making safety improvements at its plants while it attempted to decommission Fukushima Daiichi and compensate evacuees.
Despite the NRA’s approval, it could take years for the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors to go back into operation.
The governor of Niigata, Ryuichi Yoneyama, has said he will not decide on whether to agree to the restarts until Tepco completes its review of the Fukushima accident – a process that is expected to take at least another three years.
Fukushima evacuees voiced anger at the regulator’s decision.
“It looks like things are moving forward as if the Fukushima nuclear crisis is over,” Hiroko Matsumoto, who lives in temporary housing, told Kyodo news. Matsumoto, whose home was close to Fukushima Daiichi, said Tepco should “never forget that a serious nuclear accident can cause enormous damage”.
Tepco has been seeking permission to restart the idled reactors to help it reduce spending on fossil fuel imports, which have soared since the disaster, triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami, forced the closure of all of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Four have since gone back online after passing safety inspections.
The utility faces huge compensation claims from people who were evacuated after three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors went into meltdown on 11 March 2011, as well as a rising decommissioning bill.
Earlier this year, the Japan Centre for Economic Research said the total cost of the Fukushima cleanup – which is expected to take up to 40 years – could soar to between 50-70tn yen (£330bn-£470bn). Earlier estimates put the cost at about 22tn yen.
Nuclear power is expected to become a key issue in the election later this month.
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has argued that reactor restarts are necessary for economic growth and to enable Japan to meet its climate change commitments. The government wants nuclear to provide about 20% of Japan’s energy by 2030.
But the newly formed Party of Hope, which has emerged as the main opposition to Abe’s Liberal Democratic party, wants to phase out nuclear power by 2030.
Opinion polls show that most Japanese people oppose nuclear restarts.
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