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Japan Reverses 40-Year Plan On Nuclear Plants

Wed, 01/18/2012 - 9:11am
Mari Yamaguchi, Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — Japan is backtracking on plans formed only this month to shut down nuclear reactors after 40 years, saying Wednesday it could allow some plants an exemption to run for up to 60 years.

The government had announced its plan to introduce the legislation requiring plants to shutter after 40 years as part of its campaign to improve safety following the nuclear crisis set off by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Concern about aging reactors has grown because three of those at the tsunami-hit plant were built starting in the late 1960s and many more of Japan's 54 reactors will reach the 40-year mark in coming years.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government still plans to stick to the 40-year cap in principle. He said exemptions would be rare, with each reactor only allowed a maximum of one. He said to qualify a reactor would have to meet strict safety requirements.

The Cabinet is set to approve the proposed bill by end of January before submitting legislation to parliament for further debate.

Japan currently does not have a limit on the operational lifespan of reactors.

The proposed legislation is similar to regulations in the U.S., which grant 40-year licenses and allow for 20-year extensions. Such renewals have been granted to 66 of 104 U.S. nuclear reactors. That process has been so routine that many in the industry are already planning for additional license extensions that could push theplants to operate for decades longer.

If Japan sticks to the 40-year-rule, 36 reactors would have to be shut down by 2030, the Asahi newspaper reported earlier this month.

Since the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, Japan has ordered reactors across the country to undergo new sets of tests — known as "stress tests" — and get community approval before they can be restarted.

Nuclear officials were expected to rule Wednesday that two nuclear reactors in western Japan had passed stress tests, paving the way for a restart. It was still unclear if the community would approve.

The stress tests are similar to those used in France and other European countries, where they conduct a simulation designed to assess if the plants could weather extreme events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and other disasters.

Some experts and concerned residents in Japan say there is no clear criteria in these stress tests, rendering them meaningless.

Japan is currently reviewing its future energy policy and plans to announce one this summer. Fujimura also said that Japan is trying to be less reliant to nuclear energy.

"If you limit an operational lifespan at 40 years, obviously the number of nuclear power plants would decrease," he said. "We are still aiming to reduce reliance on nuclear energy, but it's a goal that we cannot be achieved overnight."

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