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Politics

'Reckless' act wins priority safety checks for nuclear operator

TOKYO -- It was "a bit reckless," a Kyushu Electric Power official concedes, but it worked: The utility's Sendai nuclear plant won priority status for safety checks needed to resume operation.

     The power station in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, has moved to the top of a long waiting list of idle reactors. If the two reactors of the Sendai plant pass the safety checks as early as May, they could restart this summer at the earliest.

     As part of the Nuclear Regulation Authority's reactor safety assessments, plant operators need to show their assumptions for peak ground acceleration during earthquakes. When it applied for the checks, Kyushu Electric had submitted a figure of 540 Gal, with a Gal equal to 1cm per second squared. But it decided to hike the estimate to 620 Gal on the day of the hearing.

     In fact, the regulator had urged nuclear plant operators to review their assumptions. Notorious for moving in lock step, the big regional utilities had delegated this task to an industry-funded research body.

     While its peers waited for the institute to recommend an increase, Kyushu Electric went ahead on its own, impressing regulatory officials.

     "Kyushu Electric has a different attitude from other power companies," said a senior official at the NRA secretariat.

     Chastened by the Fukushima Daichi meltdowns, Japan adopted new reactor safety guidelines that demand more stringent precautions against earthquakes, reflecting scenarios arguably unthinkable before the March 2011 temblor and tsunami. Yet the first utilities to submit applications for safety checks under the new regime last July put forward the same assumptions about quake intensity as before the disaster.

     This is the main reason the process has taken so long. Eager to restart reactors, plant operators are reluctant to change the baseline for their safety measures, which could necessitate time-consuming additional assessments and quake-proofing measures. Critics accuse them of releasing data piecemeal, each eyeing what the other is doing, in an attempt to do the bare minimum. The NRA grew frustrated with what it saw as a concerted effort to haggle over safety.

Breaking ranks

Kyushu Electric had its own reason for straying from the pack. When Hokkaido Electric Power announced in February that it wanted to raise electric rates again, some in the industry speculated that Kyushu Electric would be the next to bite the bullet. With a slim capital ratio, Hokkaido Electric was regarded as the utility in the worst financial shape, followed by Kyushu Electric.

     President Michiaki Uriu had hinted that another price increase could be an option for Kyushu Electric if the Sendai restart were delayed. But utilities have no guarantee that the government will simply sign off on their rate hike requests. In the end, the bleak prospect of a prolonged shutdown drove Kyushu Electric to break ranks.

     Where it succeeded in winning over the nuclear regulator, Kansai Electric Power, the utility for the greater Osaka area, arguably did the opposite. Faced with multiple setbacks in its bid to restart its Oi and Takahama nuclear plants, including the possibility that active faults under the facilities could move in tandem, the utility stonewalled. Kansai Electric representatives got a dressing down from NRA commissioners at a hearing on March 5.

     "They have a real attitude problem at that company," scoffed an official at the NRA secretariat.

     Plant operators' assumptions of earthquake intensity were proven wrong not only by the March 2011 quake but others before it, notably the 2007 Niigata temblor, which rattled Fukushima Daiichi operator Tepco's sprawling Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station. Hence, the nuclear regulator's emphasis on going above and beyond worst-case scenarios.

     The industry's emphasis on conformity and its chumminess with overseers were blamed as factors in the Fukushima disaster. Having inherited the stigma of failing to prevent it, the NRA is hoping the shock of the Sendai plant winning fast-track status will spur competition on safety.

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