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Japanese regulators OK restart of two nuclear reactors

Kazuhiro Nogikazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty

Antinuclear demonstrators rallied in Tokyo on Wednesday after the report on the two reactors was announced.

By Anna Fifield Washington Post  

TOKYO — Japanese authorities have declared that two nuclear reactors meet new standards put in place after the 2011 Fukushima disaster and are safe enough to be restarted, paving the way for the revival of the country’s atomic energy industry.

As Japan swelters through another summer of electricity conservation and bills for expensive gas and coal imports, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pressing for an end to the nuclear shutdown imposed after an earthquake and tsunami caused a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Authority, in a 418-page report released Wednesday, gave Kyushu Electric Co. preliminary approval to restart its Sendai plant in the southern part of the country.

‘‘We’ve passed a critical point,’’ said Shunichi Tanaka, authority chairman. The independent watchdog agency was set up in 2012 after investigations following the Fukushima disaster suggested that the previous agency was too cozy with the utility companies it was meant to be monitoring. ‘‘Previously, safety inspections were merely design-based, but this time we focused on how to prevent severe accidents,’’ Tanaka said.

The report said the coastal Sendai plant met new safety standards designed to protect against threats ranging from terrorist attacks to tsunamis like the one that led to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi plant on the east coast of central Japan, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

The reactors will not be switched on just yet, though. Authorities will now start a month of public consultation, and local authorities will also have a say, although local opposition is relatively low thanks to the economic benefits that the plant brings. Both the prefecture governor and the mayor of the closest town are in favor of a restart.

‘‘This looks like a trial balloon,’’ said James Brown, an energy expert at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo. ‘‘They have chosen the plant that is most likely to be approved by the local community’’ before the government presses ahead with other plants.

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But foes of nuclear energy in earthquake-prone Japan are likely to become even more vociferous over the next month.

In Tokyo’s government district, where protesters have been voicing their opposition to nuclear power at a tent encampment since the Fukushima accident, there was dismay on Wednesday.

‘‘This decision is stupid,’’ said Kyoko Minoguchi. ‘‘Sendai is in a volcano and earthquake area, so it’s really dangerous,’’ she said, cooling herself with a paper fan that read ‘‘no nuclear waste, no energy shift.’’

Sakurajima, an active volcano, is about 30 miles from the Sendai plant. It currently carries a level-three warning from the Japan Meteorological Agency, meaning that people are advised against going near it.

But Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, said the regulators are enforcing what are now the toughest nuclear safety regulations in the world.

‘‘We believe the regulator will conduct thorough safety checks,’’ he said in Tokyo.

The Fukushima disaster led to a sharp slide in public support for nuclear power. A survey conducted by Kyodo News last month found that more than half of respondents remained opposed to restarting the nuclear plants.

Nine of Japan’s electric utility companies have applied to restart 19 reactors, and Wednesday’s decision could help expedite applications for five other similar plants.