Government and utilities shaken by high court challenge to public trust in Japan’s nuclear authority — The Japan Times

” Wednesday’s ruling by the Hiroshima High Court halting the planned restart of a nuclear reactor in Ehime Prefecture has cast doubt on the judgment of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority — which had approved the restart under stricter post-Fukushima guidelines — shocking the government and utilities across the nation.

The ruling deals a heavy blow to a plan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to bring more reactors back online, and is sure to prompt the government and utilities to keep a closer eye on similar cases continuing across the country.

Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer representing local residents, called the ruling the “most important” since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, spurred by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

About 40 court cases — including those seeking injunctions — were filed in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown disaster. But while district courts have ordered some reactors stopped, each shutdown decision has been overturned by a high court.

“This is the first time (plaintiffs) have won at the high court level,” Kaido said at a news conference in Tokyo. He said the ruling may signal a turn of the tide.

Wednesday’s ruling was also noteworthy for touching on the risk of volcanic eruption.

“The possibility of heated rock and volcanic ash reaching the reactor cannot be evaluated as small. The location is not suitable” for a nuclear reactor, said presiding Judge Tomoyuki Nonoue in handing down the ruling. The reactor affected is the No. 3 unit at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant, which is located about 130 kilometers from the caldera of the volcanically active Mount Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture.

“The effect that volcanic ash may have on reactors nationwide is underrated,” Kaido said.

Government officials were quick to attempt to play down the risk. “It’s just a court ruling. The government’s position to seek the restart for reactors approved by the (Nuclear Regulation Authority) remains unchanged,” said a senior trade ministry official.

The central government’s target for power generations calls for 20 percent to 22 percent of the nation’s supply to be contributed by nuclear reactors by 2030.

Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa told a news conference that the high court decision would not influence its ongoing and future safety screenings of other reactors.

“We will just fulfill the role of a regulator,” Fuketa said.

But the reality is that utilities have been seeking to convince municipalities that reactors cleared by the watchdog under the tougher guidelines are safe.

“I’m worried that it could create negative momentum,” said an industry official.

For Shikoku Electric, the blocked restart will mean a spike in fuel costs as it will be forced to rely mainly on non-nuclear power generation.

“While the nuclear reactors are suspended, we will need to rely on thermal power, which means we will need to shoulder a ¥3.5 billion loss per month for fuel,” an executive of the utility said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Other utilities are facing similar constraints. Kyushu Electric Power Co. aims to restart two reactors at its Genkai plant in Saga Prefecture, but local residents have filed an injunction seeking to halt the move. A Kyushu Electric executive said he was “surprised at the unexpected ruling” on the Ikata plant.

Meanwhile, the response of residents in Ehime Prefecture was mixed.

One man voiced concern over the ruling’s potential to damage the local economy. The man, who runs a lodging business, said the town accommodated several hundred nuclear power plant workers a year before the Fukushima disaster.

“Ikata is a town of nuclear power,” he said. “I feel that (the ruling) has left locals behind.”

Another resident, however, welcomed the move as a judicial “breakthrough.” ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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Japan court bars restart of nuclear reactor shut after Fukushima — Bloomberg

” A Japanese court overturned a ruling that allowed a nuclear reactor in the country’s south to operate, frustrating the government’s push to bring online dozens of plants shut in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The decision by the Hiroshima High Court, which cited risks from nearby volcanoes, sides with local citizens and reverses a lower court’s ruling that had cleared the way for Shikoku Electric Power Co. to operate its Ikata No. 3 unit, according to an emailed statement Wednesday from the company. The reactor, which restarted last year under stricter safety regulations, has been shut for maintenance and was scheduled to restart on Jan. 20.

Shikoku Electric fell as much as 11 percent in Tokyo, the biggest decline in more than four years, before paring the drop to 8.3 percent.

The injunction issued by the court is a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of having nuclear power account for as much as 22 percent of the nation’s electricity mix by 2030. Public opposition through local courts and municipal governments has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to that plan. Just four of Japan’s 42 operable nuclear reactors are currently online.

The ruling was the first time a high court in Japan has overturned a lower court on the issue of nuclear restarts since the Fukushima disaster. A district court in Hiroshima sided with the utility in March in deciding not to issue a temporary injunction.

Shikoku called Wednesday’s ruling “unacceptable” and said it will try to get it reversed. The injunction is effective through Sept. 30, 2018, according to court documents.

The Hiroshima High Court said risks from volcanoes weren’t being “rationally evaluated” by the Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority. The agency declined to comment because it wasn’t involved in the court case. ”

by Stephen Stapczynski, Bloomberg

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Frozen soil wall nearly complete; NRA still doubts effect — The Yomiuri Shimbun

” A construction project to create frozen soil walls that encircle the ground beneath Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s disaster-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is nearly finished.

Although TEPCO insists that the inflow of groundwater beneath the reactor buildings has been reduced, some members of the Nuclear Regulation Authority are skeptical about the project’s effectiveness. With ¥34.5 billion of public funds being spent on this project, the centerpeice of countermeasures for contaminated water, its cost-effectiveness is being carefully watched.

The project entails building a 1.5-kilometer-long frozen soil wall encircling the Nos. 1 to 4 reactors, with 1,568 pipes buried to a depth of about 30 meters below ground and coolant running through the pipes at minus 30 C to chill the soil.

The process is expected to prevent groundwater from flowing into the contaminated, highly radioactive underground water at such sites as the reactor buildings, and to avoid an increase of contaminated water.

The project began in March last year, and operations to freeze the final section, about seven meters wide, on the mountain side began in August this year.

The temperature of the underground soil has remained below zero, except for a part close the surface that is affected by outdoor air, meaning the project to create the 30-meter-deep walls is almost complete.

According to TEPCO’s assessment, before the project started, about 400 tons of groundwater was flowing into the ground underneath the reactor buildings and other sites daily.

TEPCO had initially calculated that the daily inflow of groundwater could decrease to dozens of tons once the walls were installed. However, between April and September the inflow per day was between 120 tons and 140 tons, and in October it was around 100 tons. That the amount of inflow has decreased in stages as the soil freezing progressed seems to prove that the project has been effective to a certain extent. However, it is unclear if the inflow will decrease further in the future.

In parallel with the frozen soil wall project, TEPCO dug about 40 subdrain wells to pump up groundwater before it flows into the reactor buildings. It also reinforced measures to prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground by paving 1.33 million square meters of surface.

In the NRA view, those measures must also contribute greatly to reducing the inflow, casting doubt on the frozen soil walls project by saying the effect of them alone may be limited. The agency has become distrustful of TEPCO and urged the company to verify the effects.

Hiroshi Miyano, visiting professor at Hosei University specializing in system safety, said: “There is sure to be a part that doesn’t freeze completely, and it’s impossible to reduce the inflow to zero. TEPCO must continue applying this measure in tandem with draining the nearby wells for a while.” ”

by The Yomiuri Shimbun

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Japan’s Kansai Electric to shut down 2 major nuclear reactors — Nikkei Asian Review

” OSAKA — Kansai Electric Power Co. has decided to close two large, aging nuclear reactors at a power plant in Fukui Prefecture in light of rising safety costs that make restarting such facilities financially untenable.

The Oi plant’s Nos. 1 and 2 reactors each have an output capacity of 1.18 million kW, making them Japan’s largest to be decommissioned aside from Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holding’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Both started operating in 1979. The Osaka-based utility is in talks with Fukui local governments and other parties to make a final decision before winter.

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima catastrophe, Japan limited nuclear plants’ operating lifespan to four decades as a general rule. That period can be extended to a maximum of 60 years with the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s approval, but that requires safety investments to the tune of 100 billion yen ($894 million).

Previously, energy companies generally aimed to extend the lifespan of old plants with generation capacities of millions of kilowatts. But with safety costs climbing and energy demand stagnating, turning a profit has grown difficult even at large-scale facilities.

Kansai Electric had already decided to decommission two smaller reactors at its Mihama plant, also in Fukui. Those were among Japan’s six reactors — not including Fukushima Daiichi — with approval to shut down, all with output capacities in the 300,000 kW to 500,000 kW range.

Restarting a planned seven reactors is projected to cost Kansai Electric about 830 billion yen for safety measures. Adding the Oi pair would push the total over 1 trillion yen. Decommissioning a plant takes about 30 years and costs tens of billions of yen, but it is still cheaper than restarting it.

The power company sold around one-fifth less energy in fiscal 2016 than it did in fiscal 2010, as Japanese society grew more energy-conscious following the 2011 disaster and the liberalization of energy retail that led to a loss of customers. Shutting down the two Oi reactors and others will cut the Osaka utility’s generating capacity by around 10%, but with demand also cooling, the reduction is not expected to crimp supply.

Nuclear power now contributes less than 10% of Japan’s energy, down from about 30% before Fukushima. The government’s current plan calls for nuclear power to make up about 20-22% of the total in 2030, far above the present scale.

Japan idled its nuclear plants to make them compliant with tougher safety standards after Fukushima. At present, just five are back online, operated by Kansai Electric, Kyushu Electric Power and Shikoku Electric Power. The government’s target would require having around 30 plants running. But many are more than three decades old, and so will soon either need to be turned off or seek an extension.

If profit concerns force more power companies to go the Osaka utility’s route, Japan’s proportion of nuclear power will remain low, complicating the government’s plan. ”

by Nikkei Asian Review

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Tepco ordered to pay evacuees of Fukushima nuclear disaster — The Asahi Shimbun

” CHIBA–A district court here on Sept. 22 ordered Tokyo Electric Power Co. to pay 376 million yen ($3.3 million) in compensation to evacuees of the Fukushima nuclear disaster but absolved the central government of responsibility.

Forty-five people in 18 households who evacuated to Chiba Prefecture following the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant sought a total of about 2.8 billion yen from TEPCO and the government.

About 30 similar lawsuits involving 12,000 plaintiffs have been filed at district courts around Japan.

The Chiba District Court ruling was the second so far.

In March, the Maebashi District Court in Gunma Prefecture found both TEPCO and the government responsible for the nuclear disaster and ordered compensation totaling 38.55 million yen for 62 plaintiffs.

The main point of the lawsuit in the Chiba District Court was whether TEPCO and the government could have foreseen a towering tsunami hitting the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and taken measures to prevent the disaster.

The plaintiffs emphasized a long-term appraisal released by the central government in 2002, which estimated a 20-percent possibility of a magnitude-8 level earthquake occurring between the coast off the Sanriku region in the Tohoku region to the coast off the Boso Peninsula of Chiba Prefecture within the next 30 years.

The plaintiffs argued that this appraisal shows it was possible to forecast a tsunami off the coast from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and that measures could have been taken even as late as 2006 to prevent the disaster.

For the first time in a court case involving compensation related to the Fukushima disaster, a seismologist provided testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Kunihiko Shimazaki, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, once served as a deputy chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. He was also in charge of compiling the 2002 long-term appraisal for the government.

“The height of a likely tsunami could have been known if it was calculated based on that appraisal,” Shimazaki said in court. “Even if a specific forecast could not be made, some sort of countermeasure could have been taken.”

The defendants argued that the long-term appraisal did not provide a specific basis for predicting a tsunami and only pointed to the fact that a magnitude-8 level earthquake occurring could not be ruled out. ”

by Nobuyuki Takiguchi, The Asahi Shimbun

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Japan circling back to nuclear power after Fukushima disaster — Forbes

” In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Japan idled all 54 of its nuclear plants. Now, though, five of them are back online while many more may be on the way.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is pro-business and who realizes that without carbon-free nuclear power the country won’t meet its climate objectives, has said that reactors deemed safe by regulators would be restarted. To that end, the Japanese media is reporting that the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) — the state-run utility that operated the Fukushima plant — is expected to get approval to rev up two units that resemble the design of the reactors that succumbed to the natural disaster in March 2011. 

“One consequence of the accident was a gradual shutdown of all nuclear power plants, which has led to a significant rise in fossil fuels use, increased fuel imports and rising carbon dioxide emissions. It has also brought electricity prices to unsustainable levels,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports. “The IEA encourages Japan to increase low-carbon sources of power supply.”

Meanwhile, another Japanese utility, Kansai Electric Power Co., recently started up two different reactors. While 43 other reactors remain offline, about 21 re-start applications are now pending with an estimated of 12 units to come back in service by 2025 and 18 by 2030, Japan Forward reports.  (The Fukushima accident took out four of the 54 nuclear units. Five of those are now back in service, leaving 43 idled.)

Right now, nuclear energy is providing 1.7% of Japan’s electricity, which is down from 30% before the 2011 accident. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry says that if the country is to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accord, then nuclear energy needs to make up between 20-22% of the nation’s portfolio mix — a country with limited natural resources upon which it can rely. Under that agreement, Japan has committed to cut its CO2 emissions by 26% between 2013 and 2030. 

“We believe that energy policy is a core policy of a nation, and must be approached from a medium- to long-term standpoint … especially as Japan has few energy resources,” the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan chairman Makoto Yagi is quoted as saying by the World Nuclear News. 

One factor that has helped Japan is a nuclear watchdog that was created in September 2012: The Nuclear Regulation Authority has eliminated the cozy relationships that allowed utility employees to become nuclear regulators and it has stood up to political pressure to turn a blind eye to operational shortcuts. The agency has shown its willingness to exert its influence and to routinely give updates on the disabled Fukushima nuclear facility. 

As such, the country’s nuclear reactors are all going through rigorous stress tests to ensure that they can survive events similar to what happened in March 2011. The Federation of American Scientists has said that the accident at Fukushima was preventable and its findings are being used to enable the restarts of more nuclear units in Japan.  

The potential restart of Japan’s nuclear fleet is within grasp in large measure because the infrastructure is in place and dismantling it would take decades, all of which makes nuclear power a more plausible long term alternative than importing liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Besides the economics, nuclear energy — from a climate point of view — is better than natural gas. 

No doubt, Japan has turned more and more to renewable energy and energy efficiency, which have helped the country reduce both its electricity consumption and its fossil fuel usage — something that a a majority of the country’s citizens favor. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry suggests increasing its green energy mix from 9 percent today 22-24% by 2030. Major Japanese companies such as Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi are investing in wind, solar, and smart-grid technologies.

In combination with nuclear energy, low-carbon sources would amount to roughly 45% of the electricity portfolio mix by 2030 — if Japanese trade and energy officials’ plans come to fruition. Meantime, fossil fuels — coal, LNG and oil — would comprise 55% by then, which have been as much as 85% in recent years.

“The key in moving forward is how to implement the new energy mix that the government has set,” Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan chairman Yagi said. “The power companies will meet the (safety, energy security, economic efficiency and environmental conservation standards) and contribute to the energy policy of Japan by maintaining and establishing generation facilities as appropriate, fully in line with the government’s policies.” 

The Japanese people’s continued skepticism is natural and healthy. But their leadership asserts that the critics’ concerns have been addressed and that the nuclear energy sector has undergone a transformation — one that is safer and more transparent than it has ever been. If Japan is to expand its economy while reducing its CO2 emissions, officials there reason that nuclear energy is critical and thus, they must leverage their existing assets. “

contributions by Ken Silverstein

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