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Japan restarts nuclear reactor despite backlash

Japan ramped up reactor three, at the Ohi nuclear power plant, to full power this week, despite huge protests and a damning government-commissioned report into the Fukushima disaster

Kansai Electric Power Company (Kepco) restarted the Ohi nuclear unit last week, the first to be switched on since last March’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, and confirmed it hit full power on 9 July. The utility, which is responsible for power generation in central Japan, also plans to restart Ohi reactor four. The plant should reach full capacity on 25 July.

"We will make continuous efforts to operate (reactor three) safely, and carefully proceed with the reactivation of (reactor four), giving priority to safety," Kepco president, Makoto Yagi, said.

The government also lowered power-saving targets in the Kansai region to 10% from 15% after reactor three’s restart, with the forecast electricity shortfall reduced to 9.2% from 14.9%.

Reactors three and four both have 1.18 gigawatt generation capacity and could reduce oil demand by 150,000 barrels a day (b/d) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) consumption by around 1.2 million tonnes over six months, assuming power plants achieve 40% efficiency. It is more likely, however, that Kepco will use power generators at full capacity over the summer to reduce the risk of blackouts.

The two Ohi reactors passed additional post-quake stress tests and gained local and national government approval to restart on 16 June. The next reactor furthest along the restart process is reactor three at the Ikata plant, in Shikoku, southeast Japan..

However, the Ohi nuclear restarts have triggered mass protests in Tokyo, with rare public displays of anger. Last week, organisers estimated that more than 100,000 protesters gathered outside Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s residence to demonstrate. Police estimates of the crowd were lower, putting it at tens of thousands. Around 25 musicians and bands, including Germany’s Kraftwerk and Japan’s Ryuichi Sakamato, also performed at an anti-nuclear concert in Tokyo.

The Ohi restarts come in the wake of a highly critical government-commissioned independent report into the Fukushima meltdown after the earthquake and tsunami in March last year.

“What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan’,” chairman of the report, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and a former president of the Science Council of Japan, said.

“Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

The report also castigated Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric (Tepco) and Japan’s nuclear industry. It also claimed the country put energy independence ahead of safety concerns.

“The Tepco Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents,” the report said.

It also highlighted the fact that both Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and Tepco were aware as early as 2006 that there could be a total electricity outage during a tsunami, but the operator decided to ignore the warnings, and neither party revealed the findings to the public.

The regulator also failed to force Tepco to increase safety measures at Fukushima, and even existing equipment was inadequate. “The severe accident measures that were autonomously set did not even reach the standards of measures set by the regulatory agencies,” the report said. “In fact, the severe accident safety equipment turned out to have a lower-yield strength than the safety equipment used during normal operation that met regulated requirements.

“Clearly, using severe accident safety equipment with lower capability than the equipment used in normal operations undermines the entire reason for developing these measures.”

Japan’s government, utilities, and large business concerned about high energy bills – dubbed the nuclear village – want to restart reactors as soon as possible, but face a sceptical public.

Since May this year, all 50 of Japan’s functioning nuclear reactors shut down either because of the March earthquake, government requests, or periodic inspection. Before Fukushima, atomic energy supplied around 30% of Japan’s electricity, and the country has since turned to oil and liquefied natural gas-fired plants to offset lost nuclear capacity.

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