The final obstacle to restarting two nuclear reactors in Japan was removed Friday when local politicians granted approval for a plant to go back online, more than three years after the Fukushima disaster.
The green light from the assembly and governor of Kagoshima prefecture, in the south of the country, marks a victory for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which has faced significant public opposition to its drive to re-start nuclear power generation.
“I want to inform the economy, trade and industry minister about my understanding of the government’s policy to push for restarting nuclear power plants,” Governor Yuichiro Ito told a news conference, adding he had considered “various situations comprehensively”.
Ito’s finely parsed statement, which offers apparently reluctant support for a policy that is out of his hands, is typical of Japanese politicians dealing with the hot potato of nuclear power in a country now largely hostile to it.
The local go-ahead came after the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said in September it believed the two units at Sendai met toughened safety standards introduced after the Fukushima accident in 2011.
The actual restart, however, is likely to be delayed until next year as technical procedures are still under way, including more NRA approvals for remedial work at the site.
Japan’s entire stable of nuclear power stations were gradually switched off after the tsunami-sparked catastrophe at Fukushima, when the breakdown of cooling systems sent reactors into meltdown, setting off the worst atomic accident in a generation.
Two reactors were briefly restarted in 2012 but their power-down last September heralded an entirely nuclear-free Japan.
Industry Minister Yoichi Miyazawa welcomed the southern prefecture’s move on Friday, telling reporters in Tokyo that the government “really appreciates that Kagoshima prefecture is doing so many things” for restarting the reactors.
– ‘Lessons of Fukushima’ –
While Abe’s administration and much of industry are keen to return to atomic generation — largely because a plunging yen has sent the cost of dollar-denominated fossil fuels soaring — the public is unconvinced.
Communities living right next door to nuclear plants, who often enjoy grants from utility companies and depend on the power stations for employment, are frequently sympathetic to restarts.
However, there is hostility from those living farther afield who enjoy no direct benefits but see themselves as in the firing line in the event of another accident like Fukushima.
Some critics have also warned that the Sendai plants could be at risk from a nearby volcano.
“In contrast to the government, regulator and the nuclear industry, the people of Kagoshima understand the lessons of Fukushima,” Kazue Suzuki nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement before the decision was announced.
“They know that their communities are under direct radiation threat even though they are many kilometers from the Sendai reactors, and it is their lives and livelihoods at risk.”
Pro-nuclear Abe has set his heart on persuading a wary electorate that the world’s third largest economy must return to an energy source which once supplied more than a quarter of its power.
Fukushima was the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. It forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, with many of them still displaced amid warnings some areas might have to be abandoned forever.