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Japan’s Sendai vote signals quickening pace on reactor restarts

28 October 2014 14:02 (UTC+04:00)
Japan’s Sendai vote signals quickening pace on reactor restarts
By Bloomberg

Japan quickened its pace to restarting its idled atomic reactors after local officials voted to resume operations at Sendai's nuclear plant on the nation's southern island.

Council members for the town of Satsumasendai on the island of Kyushu voted 19 to four to restart the reactors as soon as possible in an almost 3 1/2 hour meeting interrupted frequently by the shouts of protesters opposing the measure.

"If they do manage to restart these, it would obviously make the follow-on reactors a lot easier to deal with," Tom O'Sullivan, founder of Tokyo-based energy consultant Mathyos, said before the vote. "It kind of opens up the path to further restarts in different areas."

Sendai's two reactors are the first of Japan's atomic plants in line to restart under tougher safety rules set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, the agency created after the Fukushima disaster to restore confidence in the industry. Japan's 48 operable reactors are offline and their future has created a deep divide over atomic power.

The council's approval is one of the final steps before the plant's operator, Kyushu Electric Power Co., can fire up its reactors, returning Japan to the nuclear family for the first time in more than a year. While the regulator said last month that the plant met its beefed-up safety standards, opinion polls show the majority of Japanese remain opposed.

Twenty Reactors

Utilities have applied to the NRA to resume operations at 20 reactors, according to the agency's website. The list includes two other Kyushu Electric units and two operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. as next in line for NRA approval. The next step to restarting Sendai is consent from the surrounding prefecture of Kagoshima, which is due to decide on the issue in November.

Calling the Satsumasendai vote "a testament only to the power and influence of Kyushu Electric," environmental group Greenpeace said in a news release that it "starkly contradicts the views of the majority of Kagoshima residents as well as the people of wider Japan."

Greenpeace's call for a broader consultation on the restarts highlights how the nation's divide over nuclear power could be seen as a conflict between Japanese who benefit from the largess of the industry and those who don't.

Rural Economy

Nowhere is that debate more acute than in Ichikikushikino, a town of 30,000 residents south of the Sendai facility. For decades, residents of Ichikikushikino saw the plant in the neighboring town as a benign force, gently boosting their languid rural economy.

While Ichikikushikino received little of the direct handouts that paid for projects including a bridge, a library and a history museum in Satsumasendai, the power station drew workers and other visitors to its stores and restaurants.

That calculation changed after Fukushima illustrated the dangers posed by the Sendai reactors, which are situated less than 5.4 kilometers (3.4 miles) from the city at their closest. The municipality has demanded a say in the fate of the two units, despite a convention limiting decision-making to a plant's host city.

Orange Groves

Much of Ichikikushikino's economy is based on fish harvested from along its coast and the orange groves, rice fields and other farms surrounding its sprawling streets of tile-roofed homes. Workers in its government office building wear short-sleeved polo shirts with the town's motto, "City of Food," over its logo, which features a ring of fish, farm animals, and fruits and vegetables. The town is known for its shochu, a traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, and kushiage, a type of fried fish cake.

"If a nuclear disaster happens, nobody's going to buy another single bottle of shochu or another single piece of kushiage from us," said Kazuya Tanaka, an Ichikikushikino real estate agent who became a city councilman after the Fukushima accident to fight for the permanent idling of the Sendai plant. "We just won't be able to sell it anymore."

Opposing Restart

Nuclear opponents in the town say they could be blanketed with radiation from a meltdown at Sendai. The town sits within 30 kilometers of the plant, the scope of the evacuation zone imposed after the Fukushima disaster, and more than half of its residents have signed a petition opposing the restart. Ninety- nine percent of Ichikikushikino's residents live within 20 kilometers of the Sendai nuclear plant, Tanaka said.

"What we're seeing now is the social side effects of Fukushima, where communities that had not before recognized the potential cost of nuclear power are now all too well aware of it," Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science who focuses on Japan and disaster recovery at Indiana's Purdue University, said before today's vote.

Restart Lawsuit

Others questioning the restart of reactors embraced by their hosts include Kyoto prefecture, which has asked for the same rights to approve Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Ohi station as those given to adjacent Fukui prefecture, where it's located.

In the city of Hakodate, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, officials have filed a lawsuit to stop the restart of Electric Power Development Co.'s Oma reactor about 30 kilometers away.

"They're understanding now that there could be a problem that would make them lose their homes, they could have to leave their kids' stuff behind and they're getting none of the money," Aldrich said. "It's deeply unfair."

Legal Obligation

While utilities aren't legally obligated to seek agreement from local officials for restarts, it's a long-observed convention. The system -- along with the generous rewards for cities hosting plants -- dates back to the dawn of nuclear energy in Japan, when the government needed to win over a population suspicious of nuclear power after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The government also deemed a soft touch was needed for the siting of nuclear reactors after efforts to forcibly remove farmers from the site of Tokyo's Narita airport in the 1960s led to years of protests that left several dead, Aldrich said.

Japan allows utilities a surcharge on ratepayers' bills that is collected by the government and redistributed to cities hosting nuclear plants.

Idled Reactors

Satsumasendai earns about 1.2 billion yen ($11 million) a year from the government-managed fund, in addition to about 400 million yen from a special nuclear fuel tax, according to Osamu Kamiohsako, policy division chief for Satsumasendai city. Kyushu Electric has paid the city 27 billion yen since the plant began operating about 30 years ago.

Ichikikushikino, meanwhile, receives about 90 million yen a year from the fund, accounting for less than a percent of the city's annual income, said Kimihiko Izumi, a policy division staff member for that city.

"When I saw what happened in Fukushima, I worried something like that could happen here," a merchant on Ichikikushikino's central shopping street said prior to the council meeting, asking that her name not be used because she fears her business would be hurt if she's seen taking sides. "I didn't used to have an opinion, but after that, I'm afraid of nuclear power."

Rallying Point

Japan's fleet of reactors was shut for maintenance or safety checks after the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-Ichi station. The last of the reactors was idled in September 2013.

The Sendai plant's restart could serve as a rallying point for nuclear opponents, especially if it's seen to be riding roughshod over the wishes of communities such as Ichikikushikino, said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. Fifty-nine percent of those responding to a nationwide poll by the Asahi newspaper said they were opposed to the Sendai reactors' restart.

"Will this create a backlash? I imagine it will," Kingston said. "Most people will see the government more or less ramming this through against popular opinion."

Spurred Protests

Former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's move in 2012 to allow the operation of two reactors at Kansai Electric's Ohi station in Fukui prefecture spurred anti-nuclear protests. That decision was seen as contributing to the eventual fall of his government.

Trade and Industry Minister Yoichi Miyazawa has left the door open to expanding the range of towns with veto power to include non-host cities that would be impacted by an accident, telling reporters on Oct. 23 that all towns near nuclear plants need to be comfortable with their operation.

Kyushu Electric Power spokesman Tomomitsu Sakata said the company would consider an agreement with Ichikikushikino that obliges it to seek the town's consent for restarts should a formal request come from the city.

Utilities and the government could begin spreading their largess more widely so that other towns near nuclear plants can benefit, though at a cost to ratepayers, Aldrich said.

"What you're seeing right now -- this push and shove from the local communities -- is a harbinger of things to come," he said. "These communities are saying 'until now we didn't mind, but after Fukushima we mind a lot more. We definitely need to see we're getting some kind of benefit or this is not going to happen for us.'"

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