Japan's Shikoku Electric says to delay nuclear reactor restart after court order

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese utility Shikoku Electric Power Co said on Friday it had been ordered by a Hiroshima court to suspend operations of its only operable nuclear reactor, the No.3 unit at its Ikata plant in western Japan.

FILE PICTURE: Shikoku Electric Power's Ikata nuclear plant pictured by the ocean in Ikata, Japan, Oct. 2, 2018. REUTERS/Mari Saito

The reactor had been shut for regular maintenance work since late December and was likely to restart within a couple of months, but must now remain idled pending an appeal.

The Hiroshima High Court decision overturned a ruling by a branch of Yamaguchi District Court last year, saying Shikoku Electric had given insufficient explanation why the plant would remain safe, and not pose a danger to residents in the event of volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.

Shares in the company ended the day down 6%, underperforming the broader Nikkei 225 index which rose 0.5%.

The ruling is the latest in a series of setbacks for an industry still struggling to recover from the Fukushima nuclear disaster nearly nine years ago, with less than a fifth of Japan’s reactors having received approvals to operate.

Residents around Japanese reactors have filed numerous lawsuits against nuclear operations in recent years leading to some temporary closes. Appeals by utilities to have rulings against them overturned have generally been successful.

Shikoku Electric said the decision by the Hiroshima High Court is “extremely regrettable”, pledging to “promptly file an appeal so that the order can be revoked as soon as possible”.

It is the second time Shikoku Electric has received a court order to halt Ikata’s operations. In September 2018, Hiroshima High Court reversed a lower court’s decision that had forced it to be idled for about a year.

Shikoku Electric’s fuel cost will rise by 3.5 billion yen ($32 million) a month due to the shutdown of the No.3 unit, Keiichiro Inoue, general manager at the company’s Tokyo branch office, told a news conference.

“But we are confident that our appeal will be accepted,” he said.

“It’s a civil matter and not directly related to the government,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular press conference.

He added that the government viewed Japan’s reactor safety inspection as being the most stringent in the world and “respected” the judgement of regulators.

Satoru Katsuno, chairman of Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies, also told reporters that nuclear power plays a key role in resource-poor Japan, providing stable electricity supply, cutting financial burdens of households and fighting against global warming.

“Utilities need to keep improving safety of nuclear reactors and carefully explain about their actions to local communities and societies to gain more understanding,” he said.

Reporting by Chris Gallagher, Yuka Obayashi and Tim Kelly; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell & Simon Cameron-Moore