Japan’s first reactor restart spurs rising O&M outlook

Kyushu Electric Power’s successful restart of the 890–MW Sendai-1 nuclear reactor has been swiftly followed by fuel loading at Sendai 2 and analysts forecast six Japanese reactors could be online by the end of 2016.

Kyushu Electric Power restarted commercial operations of the Sendai 1 reactor on September 10, marking the first return to service of a Japanese reactor since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 prompted the staggered closure of the national fleet. The Sendai plant is situated on Kyushu, Japan's third largest island, and the restart followed a month of non- commercial output.

"Kyushu Electric has taken the initiative in restarting reactors," Tetsuya Endo, former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and currently senior adjunct fellow of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) concluded its pre-operational inspections at the adjacent Sendai 2 reactor in early September.

Kyushu Electric Power plans to restart the reactor by mid-October, Tetsuya Ishikawa, company spokesman, said.

Kyushu Electric has posted four straight years of losses and the company has said running its Sendai 1 and 2 reactors would save some $121 million (Yen 15 billion).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a supporter of the nuclear restarts and has noted that energy companies have invested billions of Yen to import fossil fuels in the wake of the national nuclear shutdown.

A widespread restart of nuclear power would provide new Operations and Maintenance (O&M) opportunities and boost the order books of equipment suppliers.

However, there remains significant opposition against a wider restart of the national nuclear fleet and strong opponents include former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was leader of the government at the time of the Fukushima disaster. This opposition is proving costly for many of Japan's nuclear operators.

Renewed momentum

Sendai-1 is the first reactor to restart under the country’s new safety standards, introduced in 2013, following the Fukushima accident. The restart was approved after $100 million was invested in safety measures.

These safety measures included a series of tsunami and flood protection measures required by the NRA.

Restarting the Sendai-1 reactor is in line with the Japanese government’s electricity plan, which calls for nuclear power to represent between 20% and 22% of the country’s total output by 2030.

The government wants to reduce energy costs and curb carbon dioxide emissions in order to tackle climate change.

According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), most of the 43 operable Japanese nuclear reactors are expected to be restarted in the coming months and years.

Analysts are expecting six reactors to resume operations by the end of 2016, including plants at Ikata, Ohi and Takahama, according to interviews conducted by Nuclear Energy Insider. The successful restart of the Sendai-1 plant should help to streamline the review process for these plants and shorten some of the regulatory timeframes.

According to Hidetoshi Shioda, a Japanese analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities, regulators who have worked on the restart of Sendai-1 will be able to shift resources to other potential restarts, smoothing the flow of inspections.

The successful restart of Sendai-1 could also help local governments justify to the public the restart of other reactors in and around their jurisdictions.

Due process

Kyushu Electric aims to restart its 890-MW Sendai-2 unit by mid-October and on September 14 the company announced it had completed fuel loading in the unit.

Inspections have covered the equipment used solely by Sendai 2, as well as the equipment which is shared with Sendai 1 and directly related to emergency response measures, which includes emergency diesel generators, a low level waste processing facility, tsunami-monitoring video cameras and air-conditioning for the shared central control room.

According to Shioda of SMBC Nikko Securities, Shikoku Electric Power could restart its 890-MW Ikata-3 reactor by the middle of 2016 after receiving basic NRA approval in July 2015 and clearing seismic examinations.

Kansai Electric Power Co. is technically able to resume operations at its 1.2 GW Ohi 3 and 4 and 870-MW Takahama 3 and 4 units by the end of 2016, but it is currently in a legal battle with a citizen’s anti-nuclear group over the Takahama restarts. The opposition group filed a motion in the Fukui District Court which has halted the restart.

Currently, 24 other reactors are currently under regulatory review and more than half of these applied for a restart inspection in 2013. The restart and regulatory review process has been slow, with restart dates repeatedly delayed.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has maintained its anti-nuclear stance saying that the nuclear industry is still fighting for its very survival in Japan.

“The lengths to which safety issues have been ignored in the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s review process for the Sendai plant restart shows just how desperate the nuclear industry and their government allies are,” Mamoru Sekiguchi, energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said in a statement.

Opinion polls show a consistent majority of Japanese citizens are opposed to the restarts, according to Japanese media reports, even though power bills have risen as power companies resort to fossil fuels to generate power.

Industry participants will be watching the progress of Kansai Electric’s Ohi 3 and 4 and Takahama 3 and 4 restarts to gauge whether proven technical safety will be sufficient to receive the backing of the public authorities. Positive results for the operator will provide further impetus for a more widespread restart of Japan’s nuclear fleet.

By Rumyana Vakarelska