Sunday, May 8, 2011

Nuclear Plant Board Rejects Shutdown

Sunday, May 8, 2011

TOKYO—The operator of a controversial nuclear plant has refused to follow the government's demand for an immediate shutdown, saying the company's board needs more time to consider the matter.


Chubu Electric Power's Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka prefecture.

One day after Prime Minister Naoto Kan held a dramatic evening press conference demanding that Chubu Electric Power Co. close its Hamaoka nuclear plant—located in a coastal area seen as vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis—until it could bolster its safety procedures, the company said its board met Saturday to consider the matter, but adjourned without making a decision.

"The board discussed a broad range of issues ranging from the ability to meet energy demand this summer with alternative methods, the impact on the company's financials, to tsunami preparations at the nuclear plant," the company said in a statement. "However, due to the potential widespread impact on our customers and shareholders, we have decided to continue our discussions at a later time," Chubu Electric said in a statement.

The company added that it vows to consider the matter "swiftly"—but a spokesman said there's no immediate plan to schedule a follow-up meeting.

A spokesman for Mr. Kan, responding to Chubu's statement, repeated Saturday the request for a swift shutdown, stressing that the demand has come from the very top and remains unchanged.

"I have requested a suspension of operations at all reactors at Hamaoka for the safety and sense of security of the Japanese people," Mr. Kan said at an unscheduled news conference late Friday, citing the plant's location near a fault line where experts predict a major quake at some point in the next 30 years.

But because the plant has actually cleared official government safety standards, Mr. Kan apparently does not have the authority to order a shutdown, but can only request the company consider doing so. The nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi, on the other side of the country—the world's worst in a quarter century—has prompted the Japanese government to adopt more precautionary policies toward nuclear plants. The accident was triggered by the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out the power at the plant, and led to a failure of its cooling system and a widespread release of radiation.

Threat by Land and Sea

Dozens of nuclear reactors operate in earthquake-prone regions around the world. At least 34 of them are in high-hazard areas. See a map and database of all of them.

Earthquake in Japan

At a daily press briefing Saturday evening, nuclear agency official Hidehiko Nishiyama noted that the Hamaoka plant has met official safety standards, and said that officials had submitted a report with that conclusion to Mr. Kan before he issues his shutdown demand.

"The prime minister is likely to have made the decision based on the unprecedented scale of the Northeast earthquake and tsunami and the potential threat to Hamaoka," he said.

Mr. Nishiyama also said the agency is aware of Chubu Electric's board meeting result, but said it hasn't received a timeline for when a definitive answer will be reached.

Company and government officials are trying to balance concerns for safety against the prospect of widespread electricity shortages this coming summer, due to the shutdown of Fukushima Daiichi and other plants.

And the loss of the Hamaoka plant would intensify an expected shortage of electricity when Japanese power demand peaks in mid-summer. Suspending it is projected to lead to a loss of about 3.6 million kilowatts of the firm's estimated output of up to 30.9 million kilowatts. Projected peak demand is expected to hit 27.1 million kilowatts in the summer, according to the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

While government and industry officials jousted over Hamaoka, the operator of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant reported more incremental progress Saturday in the long battle to bring the crippled reactors there under control. A spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, said newly installed ventilators at Fukushima Daiichi's No. 1 reactor building have brought radiation levels down to a point where Tepco is "comfortable" with sending workers to open the double-entry doors on Sunday to survey the internal condition.

Radiation leakage has been one concern until now about opening the double-entry doors, which block external and internal access to the reactor building. "We expect only a small amount of radiation leakage in the immediate surrounding area and it shouldn't pose a threat," said a Tepco spokesman.

On Thursday, Tepco said it completed installation of ventilation ducts as an initial part of operations to launch a new air-filtration system in the reactor building. The repair work aims to reduce airborne radiation at the building so that workers can enter and install permanent cooling equipment, crucial to bringing the overheating in the reactors to a safe, so-called cold shutdown to end the nuclear crisis. Tepco has said that it expects the air-cleaning operation to lower radiation to 1/20th of pre-ventilation levels within two to three days.

Write to Judy Lam at

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