Tepco asks Japan’s new government for clarity on nuclear issues

September 1, 2011

The president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. called on Japan’s new administration Thursday to establish clear safety standards that could open the way for Tepco and other power companies to restart their idled nuclear reactors.

Given the majority public opposition to nuclear power, such an industry restart would first require a convincing demonstration that safety has been improved, Toshio Nishizawa said in an interview.

“We want clear and open safety standards with which we can decide whether it’s safe and whether we can reactivate the plants,” said Nishizawa, who was named in May to head the utility that operates the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. “It’s going to be very unfortunate for the Japanese people if the standards are unclear and equivocal.”

The Tepco chief did not offer specifics about the standards he thinks are required.

Though Tepco remains a target of popular anger, Nishizawa’s comments show the extent to which power companies are now at the mercy of the Japanese government, especially as they try to map out their own long-term strategies, potentially including plans to build new power plants.

For Tepco, several of the largest questions posed by the nuclear crisis have been answered. The company almost certainly won’t go bankrupt, propped up by a new government agency that will assist with compensation payments. It has also kept to its timeline for bringing the Daiichi plant under control, with hopes of achieving a cold shutdown by January.

But one major issue remains unresolved: Tepco doesn’t know whether it will remain in the business of supplying nuclear power. That depends largely on the policy choices of the country’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, and on his administration’s ability to convince local communities of nuclear safety after it conducts so-called stress tests to gauge the reactors’ preparedness for natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Government credibility was undermined in recent months, analysts say, as political leaders squabbled about nuclear policy and obscured data on radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“The government can call it stress tests or something else,” Nishizawa said, “but they have to show us very clear and concrete safety standards, which will convince the utilities and the neighboring residents that the plants are safe once they pass the tests.”

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Thursday indicated that 60 percent of Japanese have little or no confidence in the country’s nuclear power plants, and political analysts have said that the stress tests might not do enough to change their minds. The tests will be carried out by plant operators and then assessed by two regulatory agencies that have drawn criticism for their cozy ties to the power industry. Both agencies will be folded next year into a new regulatory body, but until then the government faces the challenge of trying to demonstrate the safety of its reactors without first improving its oversight system.

Japanese nuclear policy mandates that reactors come offline every 13 months for maintenance checkups. With idled reactors still not allowed to be restarted, the country faces a scenario in which all 54 of its reactors could be shut down by next April. Currently, 13 are still online.

Before the 9.0-magnitude earthquake March 11, Tepco operated 17 reactors, including seven at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa facility, which was untouched by the disaster. Only two reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa are still generating power. By March, both will be shut down.

“It is my hope, my sincere hope, that more reactors will be back online” a year from now, Nishizawa said.

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

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