TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear watchdog formally approved a set of new safety requirements for atomic power plants on Wednesday, paving the way for the reopening of facilities shut down since the Fukushima disaster in a move critics charged was too hasty.
The new rules approved by the Nuclear Regulation Authority take effect July 8, when operators will be able to apply for inspections. If plants pass the inspections, a process expected to take several months, they will be able to reopen later this year or early next year.
All but two of Japan’s 50 reactors have been offline since a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns and massive radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 160 miles northeast of Tokyo. The plant currently relies on a precarious makeshift cooling system and is struggling with large amounts of radioactive water leaking out of its broken reactors.
Wednesday’s decision setting the launch date for the new safety requirements came nearly two weeks ahead of the legal deadline, prompting critics to suspect industrial and political pressure so utilities can restart their reactors quickly.
Many utilities have complained about soaring fuel costs for running conventional thermal power plants needed to make up for power shortfalls caused by idle nuclear plants.