April 17, 2014 5:28 am JST

Japanese utilities amping up pressure to restart reactors

TOKYO -- With the power supply expected to tighten sharply this summer, Japanese utilities are becoming increasingly vocal in their criticism of regulators, whom they see as standing in the way of efforts to quickly restart idle nuclear reactors.

     On Tuesday, the Kansai and Kyushu economic federations issued a statement seeking a speedy resumption of nuclear operations to the government and lawmakers.

     "It would be hard to say that efficient and responsible decision-making is being quickly carried out," they said, publicly criticizing the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which conducts the inspections.

     They also called on the legislature to perform its oversight duty to ensure that the regulatory body moves ahead more rapidly with the safety reviews.

     Pressure continued to mount Wednesday, when the Shikoku Economic Federation requested that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry allow a nuclear facility operated by Shikoku Electric Power to rejoin the grid. The group warned of harm to both industry and people's livelihoods if idle reactors were to prompt further rate hikes.

     The Shikoku and Kansai economic federations are led by the chairmen of power companies in their respective regions. That is, utilities are effectively castigating regulators amid safety reviews.

     Japan's nuclear power plants, taken offline in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, remain mothballed pending approval from the nuclear watchdog.

     Even though the body decided last month to fast-track a safety review at Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai nuclear plant, it is not clear which facility will be prioritized next. Eight utilities have applied for inspections of 17 reactors at 10 plants. While there are some likely candidates, disagreements persist between the regulatory authority and utilities over earthquake vulnerability and other matters.

     Utilities are growing worried about earnings erosion. Kansai Electric Power is expected to report a consolidated pretax loss of about 125 billion yen ($1.21 billion) for the year ended March 31, its third straight year of red ink.

     Further rate hikes would ease utilities' woes, but the government is resistant to the notion, fearing a negative impact on the economy. Tensions are likely to rise as the companies announce earnings late this month.