Japan inches toward restarting a nuclear plant

Protesters stage a demonstration march in Tokyo, June 28, 2014, against re-opening the Sendai nuclear power plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power Company.


TOKYO -- A Japanese nuclear plant won preliminary approval Wednesday for meeting stringent post-Fukushima safety requirements, clearing a major hurdle toward becoming the first to restart under the tighter rules.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority accepted a 418-page report that found that design upgrades and safety improvements at Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s two reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Power Station have complied with the requirements introduced last July.

The regulators said the plant is now deemed capable of avoiding severe accidents such as the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns in an equally serious situation. All of Japan's 48 remaining reactors are offline for safety checks and repairs since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, causing multiple meltdowns.

CBS News' Lucy Craft recently visited the crippled Daiichi plant, where almost half a decade after the catastrophe, workers are still racing to install a new underground "ice wall" system to try and contain the millions of gallons of radioactive water seeping away from the facility every year.

Even now the meltdowns in Fukushima still cause lingering worries for people many miles away. Craft reported that a spike in radioactive cesium was detected this week in a residential community about 30 miles northwest of the Daiichi plant. Scientists believe debris removal at the nuclear plant scattered clouds of radioactive dust into the air. The radiation also turned up in rice harvested about 10 miles away, according to the daily Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

But in spite of the anxiety in the north, five regulatory commissioners unanimously agreed to move to the next step at Sendai, allowing the authority to hold a 30-day technical public comment period beginning Thursday until Aug. 15 before a final approval.

The Authority's chairman Shunichi Tanaka called it "a major step" and said that the inspection for the Sendai plant incorporated lessons from Fukushima, particularly focusing on ways to build layers of protection in case of serious incidents in a country prone to natural disasters, including volcanic activity, earthquakes, tsunami and typhoon.

"Previously, safety inspections were merely design-based, but this time we focused on how to prevent severe accidents," he told a weekly commissioners' meeting, which was repeatedly disrupted with anti-nuclear protesters heckling from the floor.

Tanaka said multi-layer steps are in place to protect the reactor core and its containment chamber from damage, while reducing radiation leaks by adding filtered vents. The operator also upgraded the equipment's seismic resistance and tripled the tsunami seawall to 50 feet. Other risks such as terrorist attacks, airplane strikes and violent volcanic explosions also have been taken into consideration.

The Sendai plant is surrounded by at least five active volcanoes. Commissioner Kunihiko Shimazaki, a seismologist, said it's impossible to accurately predict eruptions, although the current assessment suggests a catastrophic eruption is extremely unlikely.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to bring at least some of Japan's 48 reactors back online, saying a prolonged shutdown hurts Japan's economy. Two reactors in western Japan had been briefly reactivated to avoid summertime power crunch, but have been since switched off pending safety checks.

"I take this as a step forward," Abe told reporters. "When there is a final decision that the plant is safe, we will proceed with a plan to restart the reactors, while trying to gain understanding from local communities and the residents."

It will still take a few more months to get the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Sendai Nuclear Power Station online, officials said. The operator has to clear final steps such as on-site checks, followed by obtaining local government consent.

Though public opposition over restarts exceeds support, Abe's government has been calling for restarts, reversing a nuclear phase-out policy adopted by the previous government. The safety approval for the Sendai plant and its expected restart marks a big boost for the nuclear industry.

The Sendai plant is 600 miles southwest of Tokyo and on the southern tip of Japan's Kyushu island. Regulators in March placed the plant, which operates two of 19 reactors nationwide that are undergoing safety checks, on a fast-track for safety approval, largely because the operator was quick to raise the bar on tsunami and earthquake safety.

Regulators will now shift work to the screening of the remaining 17 reactors that applied for inspection.