Safety approval for first Japanese reactor restarts

16 July 2014

Sendai 460 (Kyushu)

Sendai nuclear power plant units 1 and 2 have draft approval to restart and generate electricity again. The final stages in Japan's new licensing regime could be completed in October.

The draft approval means that the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) considers the two reactors, and the plant as a whole, to be safe for operation. This represents by far the major part of the licensing process which began on 8 July 2013 when NRA formally announced its new requirements.

Next steps

A public comment period has now started and will run until 15 August, while two smaller regulatory approvals remain for Sendai. NRA must be satisfied with plant owner Kyushu Electric Power Company's definitive list of required design changes that must be verified by the regulator before restart. Kyushu also needs approval for the operating structure of the power plant.

International help 
Global leaders in nuclear regulation have advised the NRA on its strategy for restarts, emergency response and decommissioning at Fukushima Daiichi. They included Richard Meserve, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Mike Weightman, former chief nuclear regulator in the UK, and André-Claude Lacoste, former head of France's Autorité de Sureté Nucléaire (Nuclear Safety Authority).

Once those steps are complete, the NRA would be able to issue its final approval for operation. Kyushu then has an important social obligation to gain informal approval from political leaders in Kagoshima prefecture. Before the Fukushima accident this kind of approval was an essential but unwritten requirement for nuclear operation, but this aspect has been scaled back and the federal government has been clear that it alone has final say on whether nuclear power plants operate. Observers in Japanese media have stated the month of October as a timeframe for the entire process to conclude.

The Fukushima accident exposed serious weaknesses in the previous nuclear safety regime. Creating the NRA, developing new standards and getting new licensing processes underway have caused the prolonged shutdown of Japan's nuclear reactors. Knock-on effects from the shutdown have included a widening trade deficit due to imported fossil fuels, higher electricity bills and increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Applications for 15 other reactors remain at the review stage with Takahama 3 and 4 said by the NRA to be the next most advanced.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News