Confusion over reactor restart approvals

05 October 2012

Japan's newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) aims to have a new safety legal framework in place by July 2013 to enable the country's idled nuclear power reactors to restart. However, it is currently unclear who will ultimately be responsible for authorizing restarts.

An initial set of criteria will be drafted by the NRA by March 2013. These criteria will then be open for public consultation after which they will be redrafted. The NRA aims to have these safety requirements written into law by July 2013.

The NRA said that utilities will be able to apply for inspections prior to July 2013, although the NRA would not give its final conclusion on those inspections until after the legislation has been passed.

However, there appears to be confusion as to who will ultimately be responsible for granting approval for reactors to restart. The authority has previously lain with the government, but this now looks likely to pass to the NRA. Permission was granted by prime minister Yoshihiko Noda in June for two reactors to resume operation. After a meeting with Edano and two other cabinet colleagues, Noda announced that the two units at Kansai Electric Power Company's (Kepco's) Ohi plant in Fukui prefecture had been given clearance to restart in order to prevent power shortages in the region. Both units were back at full power by the end of July.

Last week, industry minister Yukio Edano said that reactors would be permitted to resume operation "if the Nuclear Regulation Authority has given the green light to safety and if local governments have shown their understanding." This suggested that once clearing safety checks by the NRA, utilities would need to seek permission from local governments for the restart of their reactors. The central government, Edano said, "is in no position to declare that they are safe."

However, chairman of the NRA Shunichi Tanaka said on 3 October that the regulator's responsibility is purely to assess whether a reactor is safe to restart and not to give authorization for their restart. Permitting units to resume operation "is a major decision that must be made by somebody, and I believe that our safety assessment plays an important role in making that judgement," Tanaka was quoted a saying by The Japan Times. "But to reactivate the reactors, there are various issues to consider, including gaining permission from local residents and municipal officials, and that is beyond the bounds of our authority."

On 4 October, chief cabinet secretary Osamu Fujimura reiterated Edano's stance that the final decision to allow reactors to restart does not rest with the central government. "As I have repeatedly stated, confirming the safety of reactors is the most important thing when considering a reactivation, and the NRA is in charge of making a decision over their safety as an independent entity." He added, "The government has decided to utilize nuclear reactors that have been confirmed as a safe source of power."

Clarifying the position, Fujimura said, "In terms of giving approval, that duty has shifted from the trade minister and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to [the NRA] that is now in charge of authorizing" reactor restarts.

In response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in March 2011, the Japanese government ordered all of the country's nuclear plants to undergo two-phase 'stress tests' to verify their ability to withstand extreme events. The first phase of these tests was to be carried out while the reactor was shut down for a scheduled outage. This resulted in the idling of Japan's entire reactor fleet in May 2012.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News