October 15, 2014 / 9:38 AM / 3 years ago

Japan's nuclear restart unlikely this year, local vote expected in December

SATSUMASENDAI Japan (Reuters) - As Japan pitches an unpopular nuclear restart to residents near Kyushu Electric Power Co’s Sendai plant, local politicians say approval is unlikely until December, delaying an already fraught process to revive the country’s idled reactors.

More than three years after the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, the worst disaster since Chernobyl, Japan’s nuclear plants remain offline nationwide even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes to restart reactors that meet new safety guidelines set by an independent regulator.

The focus has switched to townships located near the Sendai reactors, the nation’s first to receive safety clearance from regulators. The debate over restarts pits host communities that get direct benefits from siting reactors against other nearby communities that do not reap the benefits but say they will be equally exposed to radioactive releases in the event of a disaster.

In townships like Satsumasendai, which hosts the two-reactor Sendai plant located 1,000 km (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo, officials from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) and staff members from the prefectural government are holding meetings to explain the restart process to local residents.

The fifth and final public meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20.

Abe’s government has said it will defer to local authorities for final approval in restarting the nuclear plants in the absence of a legal framework governing the consultation process.

But Kagoshima Governor Yuichiro Ito has limited the process to the governments of the prefecture and Satsumasendai. Both Ito and Satsumasendai’s mayor, Hideo Iwakiri, favor a restart.

Officials in other towns are crying foul.

“The current process is deeply unfair... If there was an accident, we face the same risks (as Satsumasendai) and none of the rewards,” Seiichi Tabata, the mayor of Ichikikushikino, a city just 5 km from the Sendai plant, told Reuters in an interview. Tabata and his local city council are not included in the final approval process to restart the plant.

More than half the 30,000 Ichikikushikino residents signed a petition opposing the restart earlier this year. That town and nearby Hioki city, with 50,000 people, have both asked to be part of the approval process, but Governor Ito has refused.

In Setsumasendai, lawmakers said the assembly is likely to vote on the restart in early November, followed by the mayor’s endorsement. Out of 26 city assemblymen, only three are openly opposed to the restart.

If it passes the city council vote, the prefectural assembly is expected to vote on the restart by mid- to late December, local politicians say. Eight assembly members are opposed to the restart out of 49 lawmakers, an anti-nuclear assemblywoman said.

Japan’s industry minister Yuko Obuchi is expected to visit Kagoshima to explain the restart to the public after a request from the local assembly, media reported on Wednesday.

Kyushu Electric still needs to pass operational safety checks by Japan’s nuclear regulator, making it difficult to determine the timing of the restart even after local approval.

The utility is still submitting hundreds of pages of documents on operational management and their construction plans. The plant also needs to pass on-site safety inspection by regulators before reactors can be turned back online.

Reporting by Kentaro Hamada; Writing by Mari Saito; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and

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