Nuclear Reactor Restarts in Japan ~Utilities face costly and risky uphill battles


Illustration by Shoji Takagi: “Is it really OK to restart Ikata when earthquakes are coming closer and closer?”

On August 12, 2016, Shikoku Electric Power Co. (SEPC) restarted Unit 3, an 890-megawatt (MW) pressurized-water reactor (PWR) at its Ikata Nuclear Power Station (INPS) in Ehime Prefecture.  This nuclear power plant is situated in Ikata, the western-most town of Shikoku Island. It was decided to decommission INPS’s Unit 1, a 566-MW PWR, on May 10 this year, 38 years and 8 months after the start of operation. Unit 2 is also a 566-MW PWR, which had been operational for 34 years and 5 months as of the end of August 2016. The utility reportedly plans to restart this reactor but it has yet to apply for inspections to determine that the reactor complies with the new safety regulations formulated after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Unit 3 is relatively new, 23 years and 8 months old, and its power output is 1.6 times greater than that of Unit 1 and Unit 2. For this reason, the utility has allegedly concluded that the 170 billion yen remodeling cost for meeting the new requirements will eventually be recovered if Unit 3 is brought back online. This amount is more than half the reactor’s original construction cost.

As a result, the number of nuclear reactors reactivated after clearing the new safety regulations totaled five, including Units 3 and 4 (PWR, 870MW each) of Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO)’s Takahama nuclear plant, and Units 1 and 2 (PWR, 890MW each) of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear plant. Regarding Units 3 and 4 of the Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture, however, the Otsu District Court issued an injunction on March 9, 2016, banning operation of the two units due to safety concerns. KEPCO’s objection, filed against the court’s decision, was rejected on July 12 and the two units currently remain idle. KEPCO has recently appealed the case to the Osaka High Court.
On August 26, 2016, newly-elected Kagoshima Prefectural Governor Satoshi Mitazono called on Kyushu Electric Power Co. to temporarily halt operation of Units 1 and 2 of the Sendai nuclear power plant. He also demanded that the utility conduct a survey of active faults around the plant as well as an inspection and verification of its facilities. Elected for the first time in the July 10th gubernatorial election, Mitazono is greatly concerned about the recent series of strong earthquakes, with magnitudes up to 7.3 that occurred in adjacent Kumamoto Prefecture in April 2016. Although the utility rejected his demand on September 5, it is  certain that the operation of Unit 1 will be halted in October, and that of Unit 2 in December, for official inspections. The public are expected to watch the results of these inspections closely, which means that the second restart of the two reactors may become even more difficult than the first one.
In other words, no matter if the utilities ignore public opposition and resume operation of any of their nuclear plants, they may face a court order to halt operation immediately. Even if no trouble occurs at the plant, the reactors will go offline again in 13 months for regular maintenance. Many popular efforts to block the restart of nuclear reactors have been made, often in vain, but such efforts will probably serve as the basis for future campaigns against restarts of other reactors or against the second restarts of reactors after they have been shut down for maintenance. As of the end of August, applications for inspections to determine compliance with the new safety standards, the first step to restarting a reactor, had been filed for a total of 19 reactors nationwide. We are, therefore, determined to strengthen our capability to prevent restarts of nuclear reactors. Almost all public opinion polls conducted both nationwide and in local communities thus far show that the number of people against nuclear reactor restarts is far greater than the number of people in favor of them.
Although the Shikoku utility insists that the remodeling costs spent on restarting Unit 3 are recoverable, we believe that they will not be even if the operation period is extended beyond 40 years. On the contrary, it is quite possible  that the reactor will face a shutdown in the near future.
On March 11, 2016, a group of local residents filed an application for a temporary injunction to halt the operation of Unit 3 of the Ikata nuclear plant with the Hiroshima District Court. Hiroshima is located on the opposite side of the Inland Sea from Ehime Prefecture. On May 31, another group of local residents filed a similar application with the Matsuyama District Court in Ehime. In Oita Prefecture, situated on the opposite side of the Sea of Uwa from Ehime, another group of local residents launched the same legal action. If just one of the three courts grants the plaintiffs a temporary injunction, the operation of Unit 3 will be suspended. In the case where all three courts reject the application, the plaintiffs are at liberty to appeal the case to higher courts. Another option for them is to file new applications for a temporary injunction in neighboring district courts.
As things stand now, it would be very risky for the utilities to spend enormous sums of money to renovate their plants in preparation for reactor restarts. As this writer mentioned in the lead article of NIT 173 (p.3), a growing number of courts are handing down rulings or decisions in favor of local residents and such decisions are becoming commonplace, and have come to be expected.
Meanwhile, it has become quite obvious that the suspension of nuclear plant operations causes neither blackouts nor fossil fuel price hikes. During the period between March 2012, one year after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, and August 2016, the period when more than three nuclear reactors were operational was less than three months, and for 25 months of that period only one or two units were online. All reactors were offline for 26 months during that period. Despite this situation, there was no power-supply shortage at any time during the 54-month period.
The power-saving campaigns have also been scaled down year by year, and totally disappeared in the summer of 2016. Although the utilities advised their customers on a daily basis to set their air-conditioners at a room temperature below 28 degrees centigrade for the purpose of preventing heat strokes, the total power consumption did not increase this summer. The leveling-off in power consumption continued not because many nuclear power plants were shut down. It was due to the fact that Japan’s total power consumption had already peaked 10 years before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and since then we have seen no renewal of the high power consumption record. If consumers had stepped up their energy-saving efforts and had promoted the efficient use of power, there could possibly have been a sharper contraction of power demand.
The utilities have raised the power rates, citing the increased use of fossil fuels after their nuclear plants were shut down. However, they did not raise their power rates when the fossil fuel purchasing prices shot up earlier. They did not do so for fear of causing a contraction in domestic power demand. Currently, the demand is bound to shrink, even without the rate hikes. In view of this situation, the utilities have decided to resort to rate hikes by citing shutdowns of their nuclear plants as an excuse. This means that the power rates will not decline even if the utilities resume operation of their nuclear plants.
We plan to press the utilities to give up their plan to restart their nuclear power plants, and will strive to achieve our aim of legislating a total ban on nuclear power generation. Completing the departure from nuclear power generation earlier than Germany is no dream.
(Baku Nishio, Co-Director, CNIC)
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