Story by The New York Times
Fukui Prefecture, with 13 commercial nuclear reactors clustered along a short, rugged coastline, has earned the area a reputation as a political stronghold for the atomic power industry. Nuclear-friendly politicians dominate most of Fukui’s government offices, and the region is nicknamed Genpatsu Ginza, or Nuclear Alley.
Fukui has now emerged as a battleground for the Japanese government’s effort to rebuild the nuclear industry and reverse the economic impact of the reactor shutdowns. On Tuesday, a local judge blocked the latest attempt to get atomic power back on the grid, issuing an injunction forbidding the restarting of two nuclear reactors at the Takahama power plant in the region.
The nuclear industry has been in a state of paralysis since the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant four years ago. None of the 48 usable reactors in Japan are back online.
Business groups say that delays in returning at least some plants to service are wrecking their bottom line. The price of electricity has increased by 20 percent or more, reflecting the cost of importing more oil and natural gas to make up for the lost nuclear power. That translates to the equivalent of several tens of billions of dollars a year in added expenses for households and companies, according to government estimates.
It is a potential stumbling block for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to rekindle economic growth, which have focused on increasing corporate profits and consumer spending. Because of the increased use of fossil fuels, Japan’s carbon emissions have also risen in the four years since the country began taking its reactors offline.
The decline in oil prices, which have fallen about 50 percent since June, has taken some of the pressure off the economy. But the government nonetheless sees a revival of nuclear power as critical to supporting growth and slowing an exodus of Japanese industry to lower-cost countries.
The Kansai Electric Power Company, which owns the plant at the heart of the ruling issued on Tuesday, serves a swath of western Japan that includes the metropolis of Osaka. The area served is also home to industrial giants like Panasonic.
Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary for Mr. Abe, questioned the scientific rationale for the Fukui court’s decision and said it would not alter the government’s support for nuclear power.
“The reactors have been judged by experts to meet the new safety standards,” Mr. Suga said, referring to a review by the Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan that was completed late last year. The agency determined that the Takahama reactors met tougher guidelines introduced after the Fukushima disaster. “We will respect that judgment, and there is no change to our policy of moving ahead with restarts,” Mr. Suga said.
Kansai Electric had intended the reactors in Fukui to be among the first in the country to be returned to service after the introduction of the new rules more than two years ago. But in his ruling on Tuesday, the judge, Hideaki Higuchi, challenged the adequacy of the standards, which cover things like plants’ resistance to earthquakes and tsunamis, the triggers for the Fukushima disaster.
“There is little rational basis for saying that an earthquake with a magnitude that exceeds the safety standard will not occur,” said Judge Higuchi, 62. “It is an optimistic view.”
The reactors had been widely expected to return to service by the end of the year. While Kansai Electric said it would appeal, experts said its plans could be delayed by months or even years.
It was the second time Judge Higuchi had issued an order forbidding a nuclear plant in Fukui to operate, and he remains the only judge in Japan to have ruled against a utility over nuclear restarts since Fukushima. He became a hero among antinuclear activists in May when he ruled that two reactors at another Kansai Electric facility, the Oi nuclear plant, must remain switched off because the utility had not shown that they could be operated safely.
Judge Higuchi’s decision on Tuesday was potentially more significant because it directly challenged the new safety standards set out by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. It was his first ruling against a plant that had been certified as safe under the new regulations; the Oi power station had yet to undergo a safety review.
The injunction was requested by a group of nine residents of Fukui and surrounding prefectures.
“This ruling is a historic step toward abolishing nuclear power, and the government and power company should respect it,” a lawyer for the group told NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.
Judge Higuchi’s critics say he lacks the technical expertise to reach conclusions about nuclear safety.
Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor at Meiji University, said Japanese judges were often reluctant to challenge government policies. He noted that Judge Higuchi had spent his career in low-level local courts and was “not part of the elite” judiciary, where rulings favorable to the government can be a precondition for promotion.
“Last year’s ruling took courage, but this ruling may have taken even more courage,” Professor Nishikawa said.
Japan’s nuclear shutdown has created serious financial problems for utilities like Kansai Electric, which before the accident relied on atomic power to generate nearly 30 percent of its electricity. Several utilities, including Kansai Electric, have received low-interest loans and other emergency aid from the government.
Since he took office in late 2012, Mr. Abe has reversed a pledge by a previous government to wean Japan off nuclear power completely over the next several decades.
The governing Liberal Democratic Party is formulating a long-term energy strategy that is expected to set a target of about 20 percent for nuclear power’s share of electricity generation.