By Hannah Hollingsworth
Nearly four years after the Fukushima disaster, Japan is dipping its toes back into the waters of the nuclear energy industry.
The Sendai nuclear plant in the province of Kagoshima will resume regular operations early next year in the city of Satsumasendai following new safety legislation, said Yuichiro Ito, governor of Kagoshima, on Friday.
“All things considered, I must say that we still need to rely on nuclear energy, and it is extremely important for all of us to steadily carry out the plan,” Ito said in a press conference.
The plant is just one of 48 in Japan and the first to officially re-open since a tsunami caused Fukushima Dai-ichi’s six nuclear reactors to explode in the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. Two other reactors have been temporarily operating in Japan for about a year.
The Japanese government has overhauled the regulatory safety practices around nuclear plants, which comprise 30 per cent of the country’s electricity.
The safety of nuclear plants is no longer regulated by a third party, as was the case before Fukushima. The Japanese government has made the new safety procedures legally mandatory.
Physics professor and Senior Vice-President of nuclear research at the University of Toronto Pekka Sinervo says it was a necessary move to keep the nuclear energy industry a safe place to work.
“There was criticism that the previous regulator was too comfortable with the power companies, too close to them and that there was a culture within the regulators that was not consistent with ensuring that the plants operated safely.”
“The fact that the Japanese felt that they needed to change the nature of the regulatory process would suggest they really felt what they had in place before was simply not managing the risk appropriately,” Sinervo said.
“Now, if the laws are violated, it’s a criminal act. And that’s different.”
The decision was made after 19 of 26 regional assembly members voted in favour of resuming operations. Gov. Yuichiro Ito gave the final approval on Friday.
The Sendai plant was inspected and passed in July using the new procedures. Another assessment will take place early next year before regular operation commences.
According to Kyodo news agency, local residents voiced their concern by shouting and holding signs on Friday as the announcement was made.
Some environmental activists are concerned about active volcanoes near the plant.
Why is Japan’s nuclear watchdog ignoring the volcano risk to the Sendai nuclear reactors? http://t.co/X6SLsHOYKf
— Greenpeace Nuclear (@nukereaction) November 7, 2014
Mt. Iyoama is an active volcano located about 65 kilometers from Satsumasendai. There have been signs of increased activity in the past few months.
Prof. Pekka Sinervo says the decision is all business.
“Energy prices have gone up something like 50 per cent in Japan. The decision to go back to nuclear energy is one that ultimately is being driven by economics and politics.”