TOKYO – A Japanese nuclear plant won preliminary approval Wednesday for meeting stringent post-Fukushima safety requirements, clearing a major hurdle toward becoming the first to restart under the tighter rules.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority accepted a 418-page report that found that design upgrades and safety improvements at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s two reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Station have complied with the requirements introduced last July.
The regulators said the plant is now deemed capable of avoiding severe accidents such as the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns in an equally serious situation. All of Japan's 48 remaining reactors are offline for safety checks and repairs since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima Dai-ichi, causing multiple meltdowns.
Five regulatory commissioners agreed to move to a next step, allowing the authority to start a 30-day technical public comment period until Aug. 15 before a final approval.
Authority's chairman Shunichi Tanaka called it "a major step" and that the inspection for the Sendai plant incorporated lessons from Fukushima, particularly focusing on ways to build layers of protection in case of serious incidents in a country prone to natural disasters.
"Previously, safety inspections were merely design-based, but this time we focused on how to prevent severe accidents," he told a weekly commissioners' meeting, which was repeatedly disrupted with anti-nuclear protesters heckling from the floor.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to bring at least some of Japan's 48 reactors back online, saying a prolonged shutdown hurts Japan's economy.
It will still take a few more months to get the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Sendai Nuclear Power Station online, officials said. The operator has to clear final steps such as on-site checks, followed by obtaining local government consent.
Though public opposition over restarts exceeds support, Abe's government has been calling for restarts, reversing a nuclear phase-out policy adopted by the previous government. The safety approval for the Sendai plant and its expected restart marks a big boost for the nuclear industry.
The Sendai plant is 600 miles southwest of Tokyo and on the southern tip of Japan's Kyushu island. Regulators in March placed the plant, one of 19 reactors undergoing safety checks, on a fast-track for safety approval, largely because the operator was quick to raise the bar on tsunami and earthquake safety.
Regulators will now shift work to the screening of the remaining 17 reactors that applied for inspection.