Why Is KEPCO Getting A Free Pass From The NRA?

Japan’s KEPCO power company, owners of the Oi nuclear plant and also Mihama and Takahama nuclear plants seems to be getting some preferential treatment from the country’s nuclear regulator.

Oi had already been the only operating nuclear plant in the country when it was allowed to restart units 3 and 4 amid massive public protests in 2012. The claim at the time was the dire need for power over the summer. KEPCO insisted there would be blackouts in Osaka if they couldn’t restart these reactors. Many studies doubted that claim. After KEPCO restarted the units at Oi, they shut down 9 thermal plants raising even more doubts about their claims. The issue appears to be more about profits at KEPCO and favors to industrial clients in the region.

The NRA did their initial inspection of Oi last week and declared it safe to continue operating until September when it will go into a refueling outage. It is not clear if NRA will do a more stringent inspection at that point or not. They told the press they didn’t see any thing urgent: “We did not come away with any impression that something is definitively insufficient or needs an emergency response,”

So it is unclear how in depth this inspection was or even why it was done if they were only looking for glaring problems. A full report will be issued by NRA at the end of June, no hints were given if it will differ from the initial comments to the press. It does give the appearance of the NRA being somewhat spineless in the face of political pressure. The PM has declared nuclear will stay and with upcoming elections for the Diet in July, politics could be playing a role.

KEPCO is also preparing to receive a shipment of MOX at their Takahama nuclear plant on June 27th. The shipment was initially due in 2011 but was delayed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. KEPCO appears intent to use the MOX in the reactor if it is allowed to restart and so far none of the government bodies appears ready to stop them.

So why does it appear that KEPCO is getting favoritism or less stringent oversight from regulators? Politics could play a role. The region is heavily dependent on nuclear related income from both the power companies and government handouts given to communities that host nuclear plants. This has caused many of the local and regional officials to encourage restarts for the revenue. The region is also heavily populated with industry that is in need of the excess power the nuclear plants can provide. Even though the area has enough capacity to function without the nuclear plants industries may fear price hikes that can change their profit margins.

Oi will receive another NRA inspection in September during the outage for refueling. NRA still claims that it will get scrutiny and have to meet the new standards before being allowed to restart. We have researched the issues at Oi and found a considerable amount of problems that may be outside the scope of NRA’s inspections. This report has been forwarded to the NRA, we have received no reply to date.

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