Japan starts assessing TEPCO's nuclear reactors
Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) has started assessing the safety of Tokyo Electric Power’s (TEPCO) No 6 and No 7 nuclear reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in the Niigata prefecture, an NRA spokesperson confirmed on 22 January.
Seven electricity utilities have now submitted restart applications for a total of 16 reactors distributed among nine nuclear plants, the most recent being Tohoku Electric’s Onagawa No 2 unit last month, the first reactor to be directly affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
In order to cope with the increasing number of applications, the already overstretched NRA has increased the total number of inspectors to 90, which are distributed among four teams.
However, if more applications reach the NRA, additional manpower support might be needed to avoid staff shortages. Japan has a total of 50 reactors, all of which are idling over safety concerns.
Team A is examining Shikoku Electric Power’s No 3 unit at the Ikata plant and Kyushu Electric Power’s units No 3 and 4 at the Genkai facility.
Team B is examining Hokkaido Electric Power’s units No 1 and 2 at the Tomari plant, Kansai Electric Power’s units No 3 and 4 at the Ohi nuclear facility and Kyushu Electric Power’s units No 1 and 2 at the Sendai plant.
Teams A and B have a combined staff of 45 inspectors.
Team C, which has recently seen its staff increase to 30, is now examining TEPCO’s nuclear units No 6 and 7 at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Its is also assessing Hokkaido Electric Power’s Tomari-3 reactor, Kansai’s units No 3 and 4 at the Takahama plant, Chugoku Electric Power’s No 2 unit at its Shimane facility and Tohoku Electric Power’s Onagawa-2 unit.
The fourth team, which has 15 inspectors, is in charge of assessing whether the reactors comply with the new earthquake and tsunami safety guidelines.
During the examination, which is considered to be first step towards an eventual restart, the NRA is checking whether the idled reactors comply with the new set of national safety guidelines, issued last July.
The assessments, which commenced shortly after the guidelines were released, were expected to take around six months for each unit. However, the NRA said the assessments have been delayed because of the difficulties power utilities are facing gathering and submitting all the documentation required by the authority.
The NRA could not confirm the date for the completion of any of the safety assessments, and said that this will depend on each utility’s ability to submit the required documents and whether the nuclear facilities pass the NRA’s stringent safety checks.
The inspections involve a number of tasks including evaluating reactors’ response to possible severe accidents and assessing whether geological faults underneath nuclear plants are active – a factor that would result in a permanent shutdown of the plant.
Most industry observers still see the NRA completing the first assessment some time in the first quarter, with sources speculating that Shikoku’s Ikata No 3 unit – which is a water pressurised reactor, and located in western Japan away from any seismic faultlines – would be the first to gain approval.
Local government uncertainties
Even if the NRA gives a green light for the facilities’ restart, there are no guarantees that utilities will be allowed to restart the plants, as they will still require permission from local government authorities, which have been difficult to convince in the past regarding the security of nuclear facilities.
In the week ending 17 January, TEPCO announced its plans to restart reactors No 6 and No 7 at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa on the sea of Japan coast as early as July, after confirming its turnaround plan had gained approval from the Japanese federal government.
Despite TEPCO’s announcement, the company’s plan for restart still depends on the approval from its local government, which is staunchly opposed to nuclear restarts, especially because of continuing issues at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which TEPCO decommissioned.
The TEPCO announcement caused strong criticism from Niigata governor Hirohiko Izumida, who dismissed the plan on 16 January and raised concerns over safety issues at the facility.
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