Ja­pan restarts re­ac­tor af­ter break due to Fukushima


A power plant op­er­a­tor in south­ern Ja­pan restarted a nu­clear re­ac­tor on Tues­day, the first to be­gin op­er­at­ing un­der new safety re­quire­ments fol­low­ing the Fukushima dis­as­ter.

Kyushu Elec­tric Power Co. said Tues­day it had restarted the No. 1 re­ac­tor at its Sendai nu­clear plant as planned. The restart marks Ja­pan’s re­turn to nu­clear energy four-and-half-years af­ter the 2011 melt­downs at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nu­clear power plant in north­east­ern Ja­pan fol­low­ing an earth­quake and tsunami.

The na­tional broad­caster NHK showed plant work­ers in the con­trol room as they turned the re­ac­tor back on. To­momitsu Sakata, a spokesman for Kyushu Elec­tric Power, said the re­ac­tor was put back online with­out any prob­lems.

The Fukushima dis­as­ter dis­placed more than 100,000 peo­ple due to ra­dioac­tive con­tam­i­na­tion and spurred a na­tional de­bate over this re­source-scarce coun­try’s re­liance on nu­clear power.

A ma­jor­ity of Ja­panese op­pose the re­turn to nu­clear energy. Dozens of protesters, in­clud­ing ex- Prime Min­is­ter Naoto Kan, who was in of­fice at the time of the dis­as­ter and has be­come an out­spo­ken critic of nu­clear power, were gath­ered out­side the plant as po­lice stood guard.

“Ac­ci­dents are un­pre­dictable, that’s why they hap­pen. And cer­tainly not all the nec­es­sary pre­cau­tions for such ac­ci­dents have been taken here,” Kan shouted to the crowd of about 300 peo­ple.

The Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tion Au­thor­ity af­firmed the safety of the Sendai re­ac­tor and another one at the plant last Septem­ber un­der stricter safety rules im­posed af­ter the 2011 ac­ci­dent, the worst since the 1986 Ch­er­nobyl ex­plo­sion.

The Sendai No. 1 re­ac­tor is sched­uled to start gen­er­at­ing power Fri­day and reach full ca­pac­ity next month. The sec­ond Sendai re­ac­tor is due to restart in Oc­to­ber. Yoichi Miyazawa, Ja­pan’s in­dus­try min­is­ter, said Tues­day that the gov­ern­ment would “put safety first” in re­sum­ing use of nu­clear power.

Cut­ting CO2, Hold­ing Elec­tric­ity Costs v. Avoid­ing Nu­clear Power

All of Ja­pan’s 43 work­able re­ac­tors were idled for the past two years pend­ing safety checks. To off­set the short­fall in power out­put, the coun­try ramped up im­ports of oil and gas and fired up more ther­mal power plants, slow­ing progress to­ward re­duc­ing its emis­sions of green­house gases.

Miyazawa said nu­clear power is “in­dis­pens­able” for Ja­pan.

“It would be im­pos­si­ble to achieve all these three things si­mul­ta­ne­ously — keep nu­clear plants off­line, while also try­ing to curb car­bon diox­ide and main­tain the same elec­tric­ity cost. I hope to gain the public’s un­der­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion,” Miyazawa said.

Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe has sought to have the re­ac­tors restarted as soon as pos­si­ble to help re­duce costly re­liance on im­ported oil and gas and al­le­vi­ate the fi­nan­cial bur­den on util­i­ties of main­tain­ing the idled plants.

“There are very strong vested in­ter­ests to re­open nu­clear re­ac­tors. Ac­cept­ing them as per­ma­nently closed would have fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions that would be hard to man­age,” said To­mas Kaberger, chair­man of the Ja­pan Re­new­able Energy Foun­da­tion.

Util­i­ties are seek­ing ap­provals to restart 23 re­ac­tors, in­clud­ing the other Sendai re­ac­tor.

The gov­ern­ment has set a goal to have nu­clear power meet more than 20 per­cent of Ja­pan’s energy needs by 2030, de­spite the lin­ger­ing trou­bles at the Fukushima plant, which is plagued by mas­sive flows of con­tam­i­nated wa­ter leak­ing from its re­ac­tors.

Re­moval of the melted fuel at the plant — the most chal­leng­ing part of the 30-to-40-year process of shut­ting it down per­ma­nently — will be­gin only in 2022.

Still, the gov­ern­ment fa­vors restart­ing other plants judged to meet the new safety cri­te­ria, for both eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. Ja­pan in­vested heav­ily in its nu­clear power pro­gram and many com­mu­ni­ties rely on tax rev­enues and jobs as­so­ci­ated with the plants.

Ja­pan also faces pres­sure to use its stock­pile of more than 40 tons of weapons-grade plu­to­nium, enough to make 40 to 50 nu­clear weapons. The plu­to­nium, as a fuel called MOX, will be burned in re­ac­tors since the coun­try’s nu­clear fuel re­cy­cling pro­gram at Rokkasho in north­ern Ja­pan has been stalled by tech­ni­cal prob­lems. To burn enough plu­to­nium, Ja­pan needs to restart as many as 18 re­ac­tors. Nu­clear ex­perts say this could pose a chal­lenge.

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