THE world’s biggest nuclear power plant runs along nearly 4 kilometres (2½ miles) of the coast of the Sea of Japan. At full pelt it generates enough electricity to supply 2.7m households. But the seven reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa complex sit idle, along with the rest of Japan’s nuclear-power facilities. Four years after meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, all Japan’s 48 usable reactors are the focus of safety concerns. An industry that once produced nearly a third of Japan’s electricity remains paralysed.
The government badly wants some of the idle reactors put back to work to cut a huge bill for imported fuel. On April 22nd it got a shot in the arm when a court on Kyushu, the third-largest of Japan’s four main islands, rejected an attempt to block the restart of two reactors at the Sendai plant. It said the reactors were safe to operate, despite active earthquake faults and a volcano in the area. Kyushu Electric, the plant’s owner, believes it could be generating power again by July.
Yet the ruling contrasted with another one handed down a week earlier by a court in Fukui prefecture, down the coast from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. That decision blocked Kansai Electric Power from restarting two reactors at its Takahama site. It said stricter government-induced regulations after the Fukushima disaster were no guarantee that another disaster could be prevented. The court warned of “imminent danger” to local citizens if the reactors were restarted.
The decision surprised the government. It is formulating a new energy plan that calls for nuclear power to meet up to 20% of Japan’s electricity needs by 2030. The Fukui ruling will not derail that, the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, insists. He says the new regulations are among the world’s strictest.
Kansai Electric has challenged the Fukui ruling. Experts say the company will very likely get a higher court to overturn it. But the longer legal tussles drag on, the older the reactors become, putting their eventual operation in doubt. The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), Japan’s new watchdog, is reviewing about 20 reactors for compliance with its regulations. Luc Oursel, the late chief executive of Areva, a French nuclear giant, predicted in 2013 that two-thirds of Japan’s plants would eventually restart. Few believe that now.
For Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the ruined Fukushima plant, these issues are a matter of life and death. Kashiwazaki-Kariwa is its only remaining viable nuclear facility. The company says it loses ¥100 billion ($835m) per reactor every year that the reactors are down. The plant’s chief, Tadayuki Yokomura, says that TEPCO has poured $2 billion into reinforcing the facility against earthquakes and tsunamis. There is, he insists, no reason why all seven reactors cannot be restarted. The problem is that he has yet to convince the public of that.
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