TOKYO — Japan is facing the toughest test yet in its effort to restore nuclear energy more than three years after the Fukushima disaster: scrutiny from a skeptical population.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority vouched last month for the safety of two reactors in Sendai, the first to pass inspections. Still, with Japan going through its first summer in 48 years without atomic power, JPMorgan Chase & Co. is among those predicting more delays to restarts as government approval becomes increasingly dependent on public opinion.
Japan’s energy bill has ballooned as reliance on fossil fuels such as liquefied natural gas fills the power gap, contributing to record trade deficits. The focus is now on city and prefecture governments and whether they will approve the restart of the Sendai units. More than half of the population remains opposed to resuming nuclear generation after the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors.
“Restarting the Sendai plant is dangerous,” said Osamu Mikami, 73, an anti-nuclear activist who is among protesters who have camped for almost three years on the grounds of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo. “I don’t want such a reckless act to be carried out,” he said in an interview on Aug. 15, vowing to continue demonstrations until Japan gives up plans to begin atomic operations again.
Kyushu Electric Power Co. is among 10 companies that have applied for safety inspections on 20 reactors, according to the NRA. The Fukuoka-based utility is following procedures that will allow its Sendai units to run safely during normal operations, as well as during accidents caused by earthquakes or other outside causes, a July 16 draft report from the regulator shows.
About 17,000 comments have been made on the report during a monthlong period for public response that ended Aug. 15, Masaya Okuyama, a Tokyo-based NRA spokesman, said Aug. 22 by phone. The final version will be compiled taking into account these views, he said.
“It seems unlikely that more than these two units will be operating by the end of this year,” Jonathan Hinze, a senior vice president at Ux Consulting Co. in Roswell, Georgia, which provides research on the nuclear industry, said by e-mail on July 22. “We’ll see how quickly the remaining political and regulatory decisions are made.”
All of Japan’s 48 operable reactors are shut for safety checks or maintenance, with the last plant idled in September.
The earthquake and tsunami in 2011 caused the meltdown of three reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant, forcing the evacuation of about 160,000 people because of the threat of radiation contamination. It also prompted other nations to reassess nuclear as an energy source.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the shutdown of some of the country’s oldest reactors as a safety measure in March 2011 in response to the crisis in Japan and then determined safety checks were needed for all the reactors.
EON SE, RWE AG and EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG halted units as a result. Vattenfall AB’s two reactors were not operating at the time because of technical faults and never returned to the grid. The country will phase out all atomic plants, which have been the backbone of German energy policy, by 2022.
Nuclear power in Japan, once Asia’s largest producer, remains unpopular more than three years after the worst civilian atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. Fifty-nine percent of respondents to a poll in July published by the Asahi newspaper opposed the restart of the Sendai units.
The central government needs to guarantee the safety of the Sendai plant and get “the understanding of local people” before a restart of the facility, Shunro Iwata, an official at the nuclear safety control division of the local Kagoshima prefecture, said Wednesday by phone.
The Kagoshima government plans to consider the opinion of Satsumasendai city officials and the prefecture’s assembly before making a decision on whether to approve a restart, he said. Nobody was available to comment at the nuclear safety control office of the Satsumasendai city government.
“The term, guaranteeing safety, is absurd — no one can promise such a thing,” said Tomoko Murakami, a Tokyo-based nuclear analyst at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, who predicts difficulty in securing local government approvals.
“If a person says, ‘OK, I will approve the restart,’ and something goes wrong, he will be made responsible for it,” Murakami said Wednesday by phone. “A person in a position to make a final decision may be so scared now.”
Delays are prompting a reassessment of Japan’s nuclear outlook. JPMorgan cut its forecast in a July 28 report to 31 reactors to restart by 2019, down from 42. Two-thirds of Japan’s pre-accident fleet may never resume due to damage, seismic conditions that don’t meet NRA guidelines and local opposition, financial adviser Raymond James Ltd. said in a June 19 report.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to drive the country out of two decades of stagnation through aggressive economic policies known as Abenomics and any delays will be a setback to his government. The reactor shutdowns caused the nation’s household electricity charges to increase by about 20 percent, according to the trade ministry.
The approval of the Kyushu Electric units may speed up the assessment process for other utilities seeking restarts. The inspection of other plants using the same pressurized water technology as those at Sendai will go “more smoothly,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka told reporters on July 16 at a press conference in Tokyo.
Half of the nation’s reactors use pressurized water technology, according to the Federation of Electric Power Cos.
The NRA’s review process for other reactors “may be accelerated by using that for the Sendai plant as a model,” Yuji Nishiyama, a Tokyo-based analyst at JPMorgan Securities Japan Co., said by phone Aug. 25. Still, none will resume this year due to delays in submitting documents such as construction work plans, he said. Last month he had forecast one restart.
The Sendai units may receive NRA approval to restart in November, Reiji Ogino, a Tokyo-based analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities Co., said in an Aug. 25 interview.
Ogino, who last month predicted that the plant might resume in October, now foresees a January start because getting support from local governments will take at least a month.
“Nuclear is incredibly important to the Japanese economy,” Rob Chang, the head of metals and mining at Cantor Fitzgerald in Toronto who predicts the Sendai units may restart in November at the earliest, said by e-mail Wednesday. “We expect 32 reactors to return online in Japan by end of 2018.”
The extent to which nuclear plants can restart and operate has “huge impacts” on the Japanese economy, the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, said in a report last month.
The nation’s bill for fossil fuels surged by 60 percent from 2010 to about 27 trillion yen ($260 billion) last year, increasing the country’s trade deficit to a record, the trade and industry ministry said in June.
“People shouldn’t take a short-range perspective in which fuel costs would fall,” Mikami said at the camp in Tokyo, which has become a base for weekly rallies in the Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki districts. “We will remove these tents only if the government declares it won’t restart reactors.”
— With assistance from Julia Mengewein in Frankfurt.