TOKYO -- Japan Atomic Power obtained a long-awaited approval on Wednesday to extend the life of its reactor northeast of Tokyo through November 2038, but the company still faces an uphill battle in winning community support before it can bring the station back online.
The nation's Nuclear Regulation Authority gave the green light to the Tokai No. 2 Power Station in Ibaraki Prefecture, in view of no significant damage to the reactor by the 2011 tsunami. Only some of the emergency power equipment was incapacitated by the disaster.
The reactor joins three others to obtain the extension, all in Fukui Prefecture and owned by Kansai Electric Power: two at the Takahama power plant and one at the Mihama plant.
The Tokai No. 2 plant began operations 40 years ago. Nuclear reactors receive a basic life span of 40 years under an updated safety regulation Japan adopted after the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, though a one-time extension of up to 20 years can be granted.
The Tokai reactor, with a capacity of 1,100 megawatts, awaits major work to bolster safety at the facility before it can restart. Japan Atomic Power, a nuclear power specialist owned by regional utilities, set aside 174 billion yen ($1.53 billion) for the work with help from Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings and Tohoku Electric Power. The upgrade is slated for completion by March 2021.
The massive safety investments required to restart older reactors can be recouped only if output is sufficiently high, so power companies generally opt to dismantle smaller reactors.
Another hurdle involves gaining support from local residents. The company plans to obtain advance approval from the host municipality of Tokai and Ibaraki Prefecture as well as five surrounding cities including Mito. But the onerous challenge of creating emergency evacuation plans for residents makes the localities cautious.
"We will make a decision after listening to what the residents have to say," Ibaraki Gov. Kazuhiko Oigawa said.
But Naka Mayor Toru Umino expressed heavy opposition. "Over my dead body will the reactor operate," he said.
Local protests often prove a bottleneck to restarting nuclear stations, as with the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors owned by Tepco that cleared screening by regulators last December.
All four of Japan Atomic Power's reactors are shut down. Two are being dismantled, while one in the Fukui Prefecture city of Tsuruga has no prospects of restarting due to the earthquake risk from an active fault directly beneath the facility.
The company is sustaining operations using the roughly 100 billion yen annual "basic charge" it receives from five power companies including Tepco.