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Energy

Japan expects no nuclear reactor restarts this year

Four operating facilities also face shutdown on anti-terror delays

The Unit 3 reactor at the Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, Japan, is not expected to resume operations until at least July 2020.

TOKYO -- None of the six Japanese nuclear reactors that have been cleared to restart by regulators are expected to become operational this year because of local opposition and delayed safety measures, in a setback to the nation's energy policy.

In addition, four of the nine nuclear reactors restarted under tougher safety standards put in place after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster face the possibility of a shutdown next year as they lag behind in anti-terrorism upgrades. 

That many reactors still remain idle eight years after Fukushima means Japan still has not been able to chart a path to taking advantage of existing nuclear reactors while adhering to stricter standards.  

The delays complicate the government's plan to have nuclear energy account for 20% to 22% of the electricity mix by the fiscal year ending March 2031. The plan is premised on roughly 30 reactors being in operation.

During the previous fiscal year, the nine working reactors supplied less than 10% of the nation's electricity. Under the Paris climate agreement, Tokyo seeks to cut greenhouse emissions by 26% between fiscal years 2013 and 2030, but the reduction only amounted to 8.4% in fiscal 2017.

Of the 25 facilities that applied for restart, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has approved the requests for 15. But six still have not resumed operations as host communities remain wary and safety upgrades take time. 

Two reactors at the Takahama plant, as well as another at the Mihama plant -- all approved for restart -- began service over four decades ago in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast. Due to their age, substantial safety upgrades are required, and operator Kansai Electric Power's work to install safety features has fallen behind schedule.

The Tokai No. 2 reactor, operated by Japan Atomic Power in Ibaraki Prefecture north of Tokyo, received approval to restart last year, but local communities have balked. Not only is the plant over 40 years old, it has the highest population density in its environs -- about 940,000 people live within the 30 km radius -- of all nuclear power plants in Japan.

Two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, in the northwestern prefecture of Niigata, received the go-ahead to resume two years ago. But the mayor of Kashiwazaki City, Masahiro Sakurai, is demanding that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings, or Tepco, present a suitable plan for retiring the other five reactors there.

Niigata Gov. Hanazumi Hideyo, too, has said there will be no discussions on reinstating Kashiwazaki-Kariwa until the prefecture has concluded its own inspections.

In the meantime, the four reactors that are in operation, owned by Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric Power, could fail to meet next year's deadline for installing anti-terrorism upgrades. If the work is not finished by then, the NRA will order the reactors be halted.

The fate of another 10 reactors currently under review is also uncertain. The NRA is expected to update the safety guidelines to reflect progress in science. New discoveries concerning earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes  will be reflected in the updates.

With nuclear plants remaining idle, utilities have been forced to rely on fossil fuels to generate power, which comes at a higher cost. On top of that, Tepco, Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric each have to shoulder roughly 1 trillion yen ($9.4 billion) in expenses to disaster-proof nuclear plants.

To curb the costs, Tepco is partnering with Chubu Electric Power, Hitachi and Toshiba to establish a joint venture that will provide nuclear plant maintenance and handle reactor decommissioning. They are expected to make an announcement as early as next Wednesday.

The four also plan to jointly operate the Higashidori nuclear plant in north Japan's Aomori Prefecture, whose construction has been put on hold since the 2011 Fukushima accident.

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