Local vote on restarting reactors brings Japan’s return to nuclear power closer

Move ‘unavoidable’, says governor, though Japanese people still oppose nuclear power

Japan has taken a major step towards returning to nuclear power generation with a local government decision to approve the restart of two reactors.

The governor of Kagoshima prefecture said the move was “unavoidable” before the prefectural assembly voted on Friday to fire up the Sendai nuclear plant. “We decided there is no other way but to accept,” said governor Yuichiro Ito. “Nuclear power is necessary for a while considering Japan’s energy policy.”

Yesterday’s vote means the facility will likely be operational again sometime next year, once it has been approved by Japan’s watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

The conservative government of prime minister Shinzo Abe wants to put at least some of the country’s 48 operable reactors back to work, partly to cut the country’s huge bill for imported fuel.


Triple meltdown

The reactors were shut down after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown in 2011, following a huge earthquake and tsunami. The industry and regulators have since been trying to restore shattered public faith with tougher nuclear safety checks.

Kyushu Electric Power Company, operator of the Sendai plant, won NRA approval by building higher tsunami walls and increasing its estimates of how much the ground beneath Sendai might jolt after an earthquake.

Deliberation in the Kagoshima assembly was almost drowned out by the sound of protesters outside. Environmental group Green Action said the vote showed that Japan had “failed to learn the lessons” of Fukushima. “The decision ignores the risks restarting Sendai presents to the lives and livelihoods of the people of not just Kagoshima but a much greater geographical area,” the group said.

Japan’s southwest is home to several active volcanoes and is prone to earthquakes. Kagoshima city, with 600,000 people, is 40km from the Sendai reactors, roughly the same distance as still uninhabitable areas northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Some communities inside the probable fallout zone from a nuclear accident around Sendai have also protested about the restart. Aira city, less than 30km away, voted overwhelmingly in the summer to scrap the reactors.

The government is under no legal obligation to listen to these demands as long as it has the approval of host communities. With most Japanese opposed to nuclear power by roughly two to one, however, the demands make restarts tougher politically.


Evacuation plans also feature strongly in a string of lawsuits launched against nuclear utilities. In May, a local court ruled against restarting the Ohi facility in Fukui prefecture. Operator Kansai Electric is appealing that decision.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) is among the utilities that have applied for NRA permission to restart about 20 reactors, including two at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the largest in the world.

Last week Tepco told foreign inspectors that the plant was now among the safest in the world. But Hirohiko Izumida, governor of Niigata prefecture, which hosts the plant, demanded changes to what he calls “grossly inadequate” evacuation plans before any restarts.

Among his demands is devolved power for local authorities in an emergency and the installation of nuclear bunkers in local houses.

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo