TOKYO, Nov. 21 (Kyodo) — Nuclear regulators on Thursday began a safety assessment process to decide whether two reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant are qualified to restart, nearly two months after the utility filed an application.
The move is a sign of progress for TEPCO, which is eager to restart the seven-reactor plant in Niigata Prefecture to improve the tough business conditions it faces due to the crisis at its Fukushima Daiichi complex, but the Nuclear Regulation Authority suggested earlier that the process may not go smoothly.
Open safety screening meetings, which the NRA has convened dozens of times for other reactors, had not been held until Thursday for the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant as regulators have been wary following TEPCO's poor handling of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis in northeastern Japan.
As for why the NRA decided to go ahead with the screening process for the Nos. 6 and 7 reactors, Chairman Shunichi Tanaka has said the NRA could not continue putting off a screening meeting as format checks of documents submitted by the utility have finished.
He also said that he took positively a recent announcement by TEPCO on a set of measures to improve the working conditions at the Fukushima plant, which could help the company to address mishaps caused by human error.
But Tanaka has warned that regulators may temporarily suspend the assessment process if serious problems occur at Fukushima Daiichi. The screening period could also be prolonged because the two Kashiwazaki-Kariwa units are the first boiling water reactors to undergo safety assessments since Japan revamped its nuclear regulations in July.
Under the new safety requirements that reflect the lessons learned from the Fukushima crisis, BWRs must be equipped with filtered venting systems so that radioactive substances will be reduced when gas and steam need to be released to prevent damage to containment vessels.
The venting facilities are not an immediate requirement for pressurized water reactors as PWRs are housed in containers larger than those of BWRs, giving more time until pressure rises inside the containers.
The activity of small geological faults beneath the two Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactors could also become a contentious point, although TEPCO has denied that the faults are active.
In quake-prone Japan, nuclear power plant operators are not permitted to build reactors and other facilities with important safety functions directly above faults that could move in the future.
For TEPCO, bringing its idled reactors back online would help it cut the huge cost of importing fuel for thermal power generation to meet electricity demand in Tokyo and surrounding areas.
Sources close to TEPCO said Thursday that the utility and a state-backed bailout fund have approached main creditor banks to seek around 2 trillion yen of fresh loans.
TEPCO wants to secure the funds for capital investment, such as to renew its aging thermal power generation facilities, but financial institutions are expected to cautiously consider whether to respond to the request as they have already provided over 4 trillion yen in loans to the ailing company.