September 29, 2014 / 9:00 AM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 1-Japan vows to push ahead with reactor restarts after volcanic eruption highlights risks

(Recasts, adds comment)

TOKYO, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Japan’s government said the sudden deadly eruption of a volcano in central Japan won’t derail its push to restart two reactors located near active volcanoes, even though the public remains opposed to nuclear power after the Fukushima crisis.

The government on Monday said the latest eruption in one of the world’s most volcanically active countries was hard to predict, but critics were quick to note that the same was said about the tsunami and earthquake that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Thousands of people gathered in Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu after the eruption of Mount Ontake, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) away, to protest against plans to restart two reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co’s nearby Sendai nuclear plant, according to one of the organizers.

The Sendai plant is located about 50 kilometres from Mount Sakurajima, an active volcano that erupts frequently. Five giant calderas, crater-like depressions formed by past eruptions, are also in the region, the closest one 40 km from the Sendai plant.

“No one knows when natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis will strike. The fact that they could not predict the Mt. Ontake eruption highlights that,” said Yoshitaka Mukohara, a candidate in the 2012 elections for the governorship of Kagoshima who helped organise Sunday’s demonstration.

“There were plumes above Sakurajima yesterday and today. We have no idea when something might happen,” he said.

Japan lies on the “Ring of Fire” - a horseshoe-shaped band of fault lines and volcanoes around the edges of the Pacific Ocean - and is home to more than 100 active volcanoes.

Mount Ontake, located about 200 kilometres west of Tokyo, erupted on Saturday, with 10 confirmed dead and more presumed to have perished as hikers near the summit were caught by belching ash and steam.

“This was a steam-driven (eruption) and it has been said it was extremely difficult to predict,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

Asked whether the eruption would require careful assessment of the restart at Sendai, Suga said: “I don’t think so.”

Japan’s nuclear regulator on Sept. 10 said the Sendai nuclear power station met its new safety standards, the first step to reopening an industry that was idled by the Fukushima disaster.

The plant still needs to pass operational safety checks as well as gain the approval of local authorities and may not restart till next year.

Before giving its initial greenlight in July, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said the chance of a major volcanic activity during the lifespan of the Sendai nuclear plant was negligible.

Critics of the restarts, including some scientists consulted by the NRA, said regulators are turning a blind eye to the kind of unlikely but potentially devastating chain of events that led to three meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant north of Tokyo after an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

The NRA has also formed another panel of experts to look further into mitigating the risk from volcanoes.

The issue of volcanoes was repeatedly raised by members of the public during a consultation phase after the NRA’s initial assessment.

Most Japanese remain opposed to nuclear power more than three years after the Fukushima disaster even though the shutdown of the country’s reactors has forced utilities to import expensive fossil fuels, pushing electricity bills higher.

More than 10,000 people gathered in Tokyo last Tuesday to protest the plans to restart the Sendai reactors, according to local media.

Reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Mari Saito; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Tom Hogue

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