[TOKYO] Japan took another step to re-establish its nuclear industry on Friday as a utility on the island of Shikoku restarted the nation's fifth reactor under new safety rules enacted after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Shikoku Electric Power Co resumed operations of the No 3 reactor at its Ikata facility in Ehime prefecture Friday at 9 am local time, the company said in a statement. Power output is expected by Aug 15, and the reactor is seen entering commercial operations by the beginning of September. Local court challenges threaten reactor operations in other parts of the country, and even those that have already been turned back on have faced a rocky road.
Shikoku led gains among utilities in Asia, rising as much as 6.4 per cent in Tokyo to 1,042 yen, the biggest intraday advance in more than a month. Shares were trading at 1,039 yen at 10:03 am local time. Japan's Topix index was up 0.8 per cent, while the MSCI AC Asia Pacific Utilities Index was little changed.
While the Ikata restart is a boost to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's post-Fukushima energy policy, the looming threat of more legal action has put the fate of numerous reactors in doubt.
Japan's latest energy road map sees nuclear power accounting for up to 22 per cent of its energy mix by 2030, compared with more than a quarter before Fukushima and almost nothing now.
The Otsu District Court earlier this year made a surprise decision that restricted Kansai Electric Power Co from operating two reactors in western Japan only weeks after they'd been turned back on.
The Otsu ruling was the first time that a local court forced the shutdown of an operating nuclear plant in Japan and came after a separate jurisdiction lifted an eight-month injunction preventing operations in December.
"There is no shortage of activist groups willing to file suits against nuclear restarts, and apparently no shortage of judges willing to hear the cases," said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst with Teneo Intelligence in Washington DC.
"With a court having already successfully blocked a restart, anti-nuclear groups have every incentive to file suits against other restarts in the hope of finding a sympathetic judge."
Japan's utilities face more than two dozen lawsuits seeking to stop nuclear operations, with four aimed at Ikata No 3 alone, according to the website of an organisation of lawyers involved in the litigation. A citizens group in Ehime sent a demand to the governor of the prefecture earlier this week not to restart the reactor, citing the lack of a robust evacuation plan, according to Kyodo news. Local officials accepted the restart plan in October.
Despite numerous appeals from Kansai Electric, its Takahama reactors remain shut and the issue had to be raised to a higher court in Osaka. With Ikata No. 3's restart, three of Japan's 42 operable reactors are online. Twenty-five in total have applied to restart.
Kyushu Electric Power Co's Sendai No 1 and No 2 units have been fully operating for about a year since courts rejected efforts to block their resumption.
"The threat of local court action renders it highly difficult to forecast how many reactors will eventually restart and whether the Abe administration's 2030 vision for the 20 to 22 per cent nuclear share will be achieved," Jane Nakano, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said by e-mail.