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Five reactors in Japan are cleared for restart, but need local approval

Yesterday, Japan restarted the Kyushu Electric Power Company’s 846 megawatt (MW) Sendai Nuclear Power Station Unit 1, marking the first reactivation of a nuclear power plant in Japan in two years. Following the disaster at Fukushima in 2011, Japan began a temporary shutdown of all nuclear power plants as each reactor entered scheduled maintenance and refueling outages.  By September 2013, all 54 reactors in Japan’s nuclear fleet were shut down. Following its restart, Sendai Unit 1 will begin generating electricity within days and return to normal operation in early September, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Currently, there are five nuclear reactors in Japan that have approval from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which was formed following the events at Fukushima, and an additional 19 with applications to restart at various stages in the NRA’s review process. The five that have already received approval from the NRA must also receive consent from the local prefecture where the plant is located before restarting.

The plants authorized by the NRA to restart include: Sendai Units 1 and 2, Kansai Electric Power Company’s (KEPCO) Takahama Units 3 and 4, and Shikoku Electric Power Company’s Ikata Unit 3. Sendai Unit 2 will likely be the second reactor to restart, with an expected start date in October. It is unclear when the Takahama Units will restart, as they face opposition in the local prefecture, but Ikata Unit 3 could restart in early 2016, assuming approval from Ehime Prefecture.

Japan Nuclear Capacity

Before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan had 54 operating reactors. Following the disaster at Fukushima, all six Fukushima reactors, totaling about 4,500 MW, were permanently shut down. In April 2015, five additional relatively old, small reactors, totaling about 2,100 MW, were permanently shut down.

Japan was the world’s third-largest producer of nuclear power (after the United States and France) before the disaster at Fukushima, and Japan’s nuclear power plants historically accounted for about 30% of the country’s total electricity generation. The gradual displacement of all of Japan’s nuclear generation as the country’s nuclear fleet was shut down resulted in increased dependence on liquefied natural gas, oil, and coal to make up the difference. The replacement of nuclear generation led to higher electricity prices for consumers, higher government debt levels, and revenue losses for electric utilities. As part of Japan’s long-term energy policy, the central government has called for the nuclear share of total electricity generation to be 20–22% by 2030.

Nuclear power still faces opposition in Japan

A survey by the Mainichi newspaper published this week found 57% of respondents opposed the restart of the Kyushu plant, while 30% were in favor, reports the LA Times. Nuclear power has become a contentious issue in Japan following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Pushing for a restart of nuclear power, along with other issues like reinterpreting Japan’s pacifist constitution, have pushed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval rating down to 32%, according to the Mainichi newspaper.

“The public remains very strongly opposed to nuclear power, even though street protests have diminished in size compared to the peak of summer 2012,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of Japanese politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. “[The Kyushu plant] is far away from any major city in Japan, so presumably they thought that it is a suitable plant to start with. But given the strength of popular opposition, it won’t be easy to restart so many other plants as if nothing happened.”

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