TOKYO — Japanese authorities have declared that two nuclear reactors meet new standards put in place after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and are safe enough to be restarted, paving the way for the revival of the country’s atomic energy industry.
As Japan swelters through one more summer of electricity saving and as bills for expensive gas and coal imports stack up, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pressing for an end to the nuclear shutdown imposed after an earthquake and tsunami caused a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority, in a 418-page report released Wednesday, gave the Kyushu Electric Power Co. Inc. preliminary approval to restart its Sendai plant in the Southern part of the country.
“We’ve passed a critical point,” said Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. The independent watchdog was set up in 2012, after investigations in the wake of the nuclear disaster suggested that the previous agency was too cozy with the utility companies it was meant to be monitoring. “Previously, safety inspections were merely design-based, but this time we focused on how to prevent severe accidents,” Tanaka said.
The report said the coastal Sendai plant met new safety standards designed to protect against threats that include terrorist attacks and tsunamis like the one that led to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown on Japan’s east coast, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
The reactors will not be switched on just yet, though. Authorities will start a month of public consultation, and local authorities will have a say, although local opposition is relatively low thanks to the economic benefits the plant brings. Both the prefecture governor and the mayor of the closest town are in favor of a restart.
“This looks like a trial balloon,” said James Brown, an energy expert at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo. “They have chosen the plant that is most likely to be approved by the local community” before the government presses ahead with other plants, he said.
But opponents of nuclear energy in earthquake-prone Japan are likely to become even more vociferous in the next month.
In Tokyo’s government district, where protesters have been voicing opposition to nuclear power at a tent encampment since the Fukushima accident, there was dismay Wednesday.
“This decision is stupid,” said Kyoko Minoguchi, who has been spending two or three days at the protest site for almost three years. “Sendai is in a volcano and earthquake area, so it’s really dangerous,” she added, cooling herself with a paper fan that read “no nuclear waste, no energy shift.”
Sakurajima, an active volcano, is about 30 miles from the Sendai plant. It carries a Level 3 warning from the Japan Meteorological Agency, meaning that people are advised against going near the volcano.
But Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, said the regulators are enforcing what are now the toughest nuclear safety regulations in the world.
“We believe the regulator will conduct thorough safety checks,” he told reporters in Tokyo.
The Fukushima disaster led to a sharp slide in public support for nuclear power. A survey conducted by Kyodo News last month found that more than half of the respondents remained opposed to restarting the nuclear plants.
The issue threatens Abe’s popularity ratings, which recently dipped below 50 percent for the first time, although this is also linked to his decision to revise Japan’s pacifist defense policy.
Just last weekend, Taizo Mikazuki, running on a promise to break Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy, beat a candidate backed by Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party to become governor of the Western prefecture of Shiga.
The neighboring prefecture of Fukui is home to 13 nuclear reactors, and Mikazuki is demanding that Abe’s government seek his approval before allowing any of the Fukui reactors to be restarted.
Exit polls showed that nuclear power and energy policy issues influenced 70 percent of voters who backed Mikazuki, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported.
Still, Wednesday’s ruling is viewed as a crucial step toward reigniting the nuclear power industry — and toward helping Abe revive the Japanese economy.
Before the 2011 disaster, Japan relied on nuclear energy for about 30 percent of its electricity needs. Since the accident, electricity prices have surged, straining household budgets, while the cost of importing expensive fossil fuels has led to sustained trade deficits.
Nine of Japan’s electric utility companies have applied to restart 19 reactors, and Wednesday’s decision could help expedite applications for five other similar plants, said Tomoya Ichimura of the authority’s pressurized water reactor regulatory division.
But the ruling does not mean that all 48 shuttered reactors will be brought back online. Some analysts say that about a third of them will never be able to meet the new standards because the plants are too old or situated on fault lines.
According to Brown, the energy expert, even that estimate is optimistic because the huge cost involved in bringing older plants up to scratch means that they are not economically viable.