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EDITORIAL | Amid Need for Nuclear Power, Look Into Regulation Delays

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station would have contributed to Japan's stable energy supply. But the NRA only lifted the ban after nearly three years.



Unit 6 (right) and Unit 7 of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata Prefecture, April 2021. (©Kyodo)

The restarting of Unit 6 and Unit 7 at Tokyo Electric Power Company's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station (Niigata Prefecture) may soon become a reality. Finally, at the end of December 2023, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) lifted its de facto operational ban. That order had been in place for two years and eight months.

The recent Noto Peninsula Earthquake did not cause significant damage to critical facilities at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station. Likewise, it did not cause damage to Hokuriku Electric Power's Shigahara Nuclear Power Plant in Ishikawa Prefecture. 

Moreover, sometime after the summer of 2024, two more nuclear power plants are expected to restart. They are Chugoku Electric Power Co's Shimane Nuclear Power Plant Unit 2 and Tohoku Electric Power Co's Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant Unit 2 in Miyagi Prefecture.

It is noteworthy that both are boiling water reactor (BWR)-type nuclear power stations. That is similar to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. We would like to see this year mark the takeoff for accelerating the recovery of the domestic nuclear power industry. 

All restarts to date have involved pressurized water reactors (PWR). Meanwhile, we have been waiting for the restart of BWR-type reactors which predominate in Eastern Japan. Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Units 6 and 7 are both the improved boiling water type, which would add 135.6 million kilowatts of power output. With their activation, 16 of the 33 existing nuclear reactors in Japan's power generation grid will have been brought back online. Having both PWR and BWR reactors in operation would be desirable. 

Decarbonization Through Nuclear Power

Nuclear power generation is becoming increasingly appreciated worldwide as a response to the decarbonization mandated by the United Nations to prevent global warming as well as from the perspective of energy security

At the end of 2023, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) was held. There were moves at that time toward expanding the use of nuclear power generation.


A declaration of like-minded nations called for tripling the world's nuclear power generation capacity. Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Canada were among the 25 nations signing the declaration. Nuclear power is also mentioned as an effective means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the outcome document released by the conference. That recognition was considered a milestone in the history of COP.

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, attitudes towards nuclear power overseas had become more cautious. However, activity in the area has since picked up. 

One example is the start of operations at an innovative light water reactor in July 2023 in the United States. There, new nuclear power plant construction had come to a standstill following the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979.

Meanwhile, Sweden, Belgium, and Italy — nations that had been leaning toward abandoning nuclear power — are also reconsidering their policies. South Korea also ended its nuclear phase-out policy with the inauguration of a new government two years ago. Development of highly safe and efficient small modular reactors (SMRs) is also gaining momentum in the US, Canada, and the UK. 

Subjective Criteria Create Delays

What about Japan? In February 2023, the government announced the Basic Policy for the Realization of GX (Green Transformation). It clearly calls for the utilization of nuclear power to the greatest extent possible for the sake of energy security and decarbonization. Nevertheless, progress has been slow compared to the rest of the world.

The situation at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is an example of this situation. Although Unit 6 and Unit 7 passed safety inspection in 2017, they still have not been restarted. This case stands out because, with the exception of older plants, all the other plants that had passed their safety inspections were back up and running within a year and a half after the inspection.

The delay stems from a demand by Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) that TEPCO prove it is "qualified" to operate them. Suitability is not one of the criteria included in the nuclear power safety assessment standards. However, the NRA has chosen to interject this subjective element. 

Tokyo Electric Power's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata Prefecture, April 2021. (©Kyodo)

Resolving Security Concerns

TEPCO contributed to the delay by creating security concerns identified by the NRA. These included the inappropriate use of employee ID badges discovered in 2021 and the failure of intrusion detection equipment. 

In April 2021, the NRA ordered a ban on the transfer of nuclear fuel to the power station. That was due to deficiencies in its anti-terrorism measures. In effect, it called a halt to operations there. Eventually, after two years and eight months, the NRA recognized TEPCO'S efforts to correct the defects. Finally, on December 27, 2023, it gave the go-ahead to resume operations. That brings us to where we stand today. 


NRA's Double Standard

Although the NRA has taken a hardline regarding the electric power companies, it has been lenient in how it handles its own business. NRA employees have been known to lose their own inspector identification badges and entry permits. In some instances, NRA employees even conducted onsite inspections of nuclear power facilities without digital communications devices (for recording observations). According to an October 2021 report, 10 NRA employees had lost 11 badges among themselves. How then, does the NRA have the nerve to criticize TEPCO for security lapses?

Moreover, we cannot overlook the manner in which the NRA has ignored the Administrative Procedure Act. The standard processing period for safety reviews under this law is two years. But there have only been a few instances in which this requirement has been met. For some power plants, it has taken more than a decade. The issue has even been brought up in the Diet. However, the NRA has simply turned a deaf ear to complaints regarding its own conduct.

Working to Improve the Future by Decarbonization

Thus, the electric power companies are not the only parties to blame for the delays. The NRA itself should also establish a mechanism for carrying out self-improvement. 

Before the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Power Station can restart, it needs to obtain consent from the local government. Restarting the two reactors is estimated to increase TEPCO's annual revenue by ¥120 billion JPY ($810 million USD) per unit. We urge Niigata Governor Hideyo Hanazumi to take this into consideration. As the restart progresses, the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will also be progressing. In turn, both activities will contribute to a stable supply of electric power within Japan.

Foreign countries are also likely to pay close attention to the resumption of operations at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. After all, it is the largest rated nuclear power station in the world. 


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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