Market News

 September 11, 2014
Three Years After Fukushima, Japan Approves a Nuclear Plant

 For the first time since the Fukushima disaster three and a half years ago, Japan's new nuclear regulatory agency declared Wednesday that an atomic power plant was safe to operate, in a widely watched move that brings Japan a step closer to restarting its idled nuclear industry.

The two reactors at the Sendai power plant on the southern island of Kyushu are the first to be certified as safe enough to restart by the Nuclear Regulation Authority since the agency was created two years ago to restore public confidence in nuclear oversight. All of Japan's 48 operable commercial nuclear reactors were shut down after the March 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station created serious public doubts about the safety of atomic power in earthquake-prone Japan.

Even with the approval, it will probably be months before either of the reactors can be turned back on. In addition to further safety checks, the plant's operator, the Kyushu Electric Power Company, must obtain the consent of local governments around the plant. The final decision on whether to restart the plant will be made by the prime minister, probably in December, according to local news media reports.

The approval follows intense political pressure on the new agency by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who supports big business and wants to restore atomic energy as part of his strategy to revive the nation's long-anemic economy. He also wants to end Japan's ballooning trade deficits, which many here attribute to the rising cost of imported fuel to make up for the loss of nuclear-generated electricity.

However, opinion polls have shown that the public remains skeptical about both the safety of the plants and the ability of Mr. Abe's governing Liberal Democratic Party to ensure that safety, as the party has long had close ties to the politically powerful nuclear industry. Those doubts were aired last month during a monthlong public comment period after the Nuclear Regulation Authority released a draft report in July that expressed approval of the Sendai plant's safety measures.

The agency said it had received 17,800 comments, more than it expected. Many were highly skeptical about the safety of the Sendai plant, which is in a volcanically active area. Still, the agency on Wednesday ended up adopting its July findings without major modifications.

The agency said it made the decision after reviewing 18,600 pages of supporting documents filed by Kyushu Electric, as well as the results of its own inspections of the plant. It said the design and construction of the reactors and other facilities, and also the contingency plans for dealing with emergencies, met new safety standards that the agency adopted in July of last year.

"I think the huge number of public comments, more than anything, reflects the enormous sensitivity toward the restart question, and the safety of nuclear power," Kenzo Oshima, a commissioner at the agency, told reporters. "I also see it as reflecting a strong desire after the Fukushima accident to learn from that experience and raise the level of safety."

Agency officials have sought to reassure the public by calling the new safety standards the most stringent in the world, saying they fully incorporate the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, which happened when an earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems at the Fukushima plant.

Opponents of the restart said the agency was ignoring the concerns raised in the public comments. They said the agency, which had started amid high hopes for more independent oversight, was looking more and more like a rubber stamp for the administration.

"There was clearly huge pressure on the regulatory agency from the Abe government," said Akira Kimura, a professor of peace studies at Kagoshima University who has been involved in efforts to block the restart of the Sendai plant. "This government is just ramming through its agenda, with complete disregard for the public will."