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Not clear who will decide

March 25, 2012

Confusion over 'local entities' / Definition unclear of who must approve reactors' reactivation

It is still uncertain whether local entities' consent can be obtained for reactivation of the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Oi, Fukui Prefecture, even after the Nuclear Safety Commission endorsed first-stage stress test results on the reactors.

Meanwhile, the delay in establishment of a new nuclear regulatory agency, which will be responsible for the integrated supervision of the safety of nuclear power, is hindering the restart of idle reactors at other nuclear power plants.

The commission on Friday endorsed the test results for the reactors at the Oi plant, which is operated by Kansai Electric Power Co.

After Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three other Cabinet ministers concerned confirm the reactors are safe to operate, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano will visit Fukui Prefecture in early April at the earliest to seek consent from "local entities" for reactivation of the reactors.

Edano's visit to the prefecture is likely to take place on a weekend in early April, after the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency evaluates on Wednesday the possible impact of an active seismic fault near the Oi plant, according to government officials.

Edano aims to present 30-point guidelines, which NISA has already compiled, to the Fukui prefectural government as tentative safety standards.

However, the definitions of "local entities" and "consent" still remain ambiguous.

Edano has only said, "We'll judge [the issue] from a comprehensive viewpoint."

The government plans to expand the range of its heightened disaster management measures in the event of a nuclear accident from the current radius of eight to 10 kilometers from a nuclear plant to a 30-kilometer radius.

If all local governments in the 30-kilometer zone are "local entities" from which consent needs to be obtained, the number of local governments involved will drastically increase, and the hurdle for reactivation will be much higher.

Some parts of Shiga Prefecture fall in the 30-kilometer radius around the Oi plant. Thus, the prefectural government said it will demand detailed explanations from the central government about the reactors' reactivation.

Opinions within the Democratic Party of Japan are divided.

On Thursday, the DPJ's project team on measures to bring the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant under control compiled a report saying it is too early to resume operations of nuclear reactors.

However, another DPJ project team is likely to soon issue a report that will support reactivation.

Under such circumstances, some observers say it will be difficult to eliminate the distrust of affected local governments and residents.

As the central government plans to compile before the Golden Week holiday period a plan regarding the supply and demand of electricity this summer, there is limited time to obtain local entities' consent.

If consent cannot be obtained by the end of April, the government will have to compile an energy-saving plan based on the premise that the Oi plant's reactors will not be reactivated, and seek cooperation from industrial circles and the general public.

In that case, some companies will have to change their production plans and personnel arrangements.

If the Oi plant reactors cannot be reactivated, the electricity supply in KEPCO's service area will be 3.86 million kilowatts, or 13.9 percent, below the expected maximum demand.

The No. 3 and 4 reactors of the Oi plant have a total output capacity of 2.36 million kilowatts. If they are reactivated, the shortage will be considerably smaller.


April 1 launch canceled

The most unstable factor in the reactivation of nuclear plants' reactors is uncertainty over when the nuclear regulatory agency will be established.

The Noda administration excluded bills to create the agency from Diet deliberations within the current fiscal year, effectively giving up on the launch of the agency on April 1.

Mayor Kazuharu Kawase of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, which hosts Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga nuclear plant and other nuclear facilities, said Thursday, "If the regulatory agency is not launched, we can't enter talks on whether to allow reactivation."

As Kawase's remark suggests, the situation will likely affect reactivation of not only the Oi plant but also reactors at other nuclear plants, including the No. 3 reactor of Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata nuclear power plant.

The new agency is the main pillar of reform of the country's nuclear power generation, which aims to separate the entities that promote and regulate nuclear energy, based on lessons from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis.

The agency was originally scheduled to be established on April 1 by integrating NISA and the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission.

Due to the delay in establishing the new agency, NISA and the five-member commission will continue to examine results of stress tests on nuclear power plants conducted by plant operators.

But the three-year terms of three commission members will expire April 16, and all have said they wish to step down.

Chairman Haruki Madarame also expressed his intention to leave his post at the end of this month.

Although members' terms can be extended, one observer asked, "Can members who don't want to stay conduct safety checks diligently?"

Three plans to revise NISA guidelines, including a disaster management guideline requiring revision of local disaster management plans, will effectively be left untouched until the new agency is established.

The central government needs to take quick action before concerned local governments openly express their complaints.

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