” TOKYO/OSAKA — Japan’s nuclear power regulators will likely clear reactors to remain in operation beyond 40 years for the first time, an exception that may become a factor in pending reviews of similar cases.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority is expected to approve units 1 and 2 at Osaka-based Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama plant for extensions, press officer Katsumi Matsuura said Monday.
As a general rule, reactors’ operating lives are supposed to end at 40. But extensions of up to 20 years are possible for those that pass three sets of assessments evaluating their compliance with new safety standards, their designs, and the effects of aging on their components.
The two Takahama reactors, in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, passed the safety assessments this April. The NRA will compile a report serving as de facto approval for the extensions in June.
The approval process is expected to finish up before a July 7 deadline. But even if they pass, the reactors would not resume operation until at least the autumn of 2019, because Kansai Electric is planning extensive safety upgrades.
For Kansai Electric, restarting the pair of reactors would improve monthly earnings by an estimated 9 billion yen ($81.3 million). President Makoto Yagi has argued that the units still have “economic potential.”
The utility logged a net profit for the year ended March 31 but has no guarantee that fossil-fuel costs will remain low in fiscal 2016. A medium-term business plan compiled in April aims for a pretax profit of at least 300 billion yen a decade from now, assuming that most of its nuclear capacity resumes operation.
Approving the two reactors for extensions would likely set a precedent. Kansai Electric has also applied for an extension for the No. 3 reactor at its Mihama power plant in Fukui, aiming to complete the necessary procedures by the end of November. That reactor is expected to pass the NRA’s safety assessment as soon as this summer.
Other regional utilities are also weighing the benefits of keeping 40-year-old reactors in operation against the immense costs needed to make the grade. In May, smaller Shikoku Electric Power decided to decommission unit 1 at its Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture rather than seek an extension.
Such decision-making will affect Japanese energy policy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has identified the atom as an important baseload energy source. Nuclear accounts for 20-22% of the government’s desired energy mix as of fiscal 2030.
This would entail having about 30 of the country’s 40-odd reactors in operation. But applying the 40-year rule on reactor operation without exception would leave only around 20 units. If most reactors end up qualifying for extensions, people may start questioning the purpose of the limit. ”