NRA OK’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant Restart; Approval by Local Governments Still Needed (Update 1)

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture

The Nuclear Regulation Authority decided Wednesday to effectively lift a ban on operations of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture after confirming improvements in its antiterrorism measures, which had been regarded as inadequate.

Following the decision, TEPCO is set to resume, for the first time in two years and eight months, preparations toward the plant’s restart. The focus will now be on whether the company can obtain the consent of local parties, such as the Niigata prefectural government.

Starting in January 2021, problems with the protection of nuclear materials — such as flaws in intrusion detection equipment and a case of unauthorized use of a plant worker’s identification card — had been found one after another at the plant. In April of the same year, the NRA issued a corrective action order, under which TEPCO was prohibited from transferring nuclear fuel, based on the Law on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors.

In response, TEPCO has implemented measures such as dealing with malfunctions of the intrusion detection equipment and expanding the use of biometric authentication devices. A new section has been also set up at the plant under the direct control of the TEPCO president, and a system to monitor employees’ awareness and behavior on a regular basis has been established.

In May this year, the NRA decided not to lift the order, citing insufficient improvements in the monitoring system and other areas. On Dec. 6, however, the NRA’s secretariat released a draft report stating that “corrective measures have been taken.” After that, NRA Chairman Shinsuke Yamanaka and others discussed the pros and cons of lifting the order, while inspecting the plant and conducting a hearing with TEPCO President Tomoaki Kobayakawa.

At a regular meeting of the nuclear watchdog on Wednesday morning, all five officials, including Yamanaka, were in favor of lifting the order.

At the same time, the NRA called for TEPCO to continue to make improvements in both hard and soft aspects and for the company to make permanent efforts to check for any slackening of improved activities on its own. The company was also urged to train personnel to pass on such efforts from generation to generation even if its management, executives and staff in charge are replaced.

Besides the antiterrorism measures, the NRA had been reassessing the qualification of TEPCO, which had a major accident at its Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011, to be a nuclear power plant operator, but concluded at the meeting on Wednesday that the company is qualified.

TEPCO now intends to seek consent for the restart from Niigata Prefecture, as well as Kashiwazaki City and Kariwa Village, where its plant is located. The mayors of the two municipalities have expressed their approval for the restart in general, but Niigata Gov. Hideyo Hanazumi has not clarified his stance, leaving the future of local consent unclear.

Hanazumi has indicated that he would decide on the restart following the NRA decision to lift the ban and then confirm the will of the prefecture’s residents. To confirm the will of local residents, he has not ruled out the possibility of a gubernatorial election, stating that asking the public for a mandate through a vote is the clearest way to take responsibility for a decision.