— TOKYO (AP) — Japan's nuclear watchdog formally approved a set of new safety requirements for atomic power plants Wednesday, paving the way for the reopening of facilities shut down since the Fukushima disaster.
The new requirements approved by the Nuclear Regulation Authority will take effect on July 8, when operators will be able to apply for inspections. If plants pass inspection, a process expected to take several months, they can reopen later this year or early next year.
All but two of Japan's 50 reactors have been offline since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns and massive radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Tokyo. The plant, which barely runs on a precarious cooling system, has struggled with swelling contaminated water leaking out of broken reactors and other mishaps related to its makeshift operations.
Wednesday's decision setting the launch date for the new requirement comes nearly two weeks ahead of the legal deadline, prompting critics to suspect industrial and political pressure so that utilities can start the procedure for restart as soon as possible.
Many utilities have complained about soaring fuel costs to run conventional thermal power plants to make up for the shortfalls by idle nuclear plants.
The critics also say the new requirements still have loopholes that make things easier for operators, including a five-year grace period on installing some mandated new equipment.
However, watchdog officials denied any outside influence.
The new requirements for the first time make compulsory that plants take steps to guard against radiation leaks in the case of severe accidents such as a core melt, install emergency command centers and enact anti-terrorist measures. Operators are also required to upgrade their protection against tsunamis and earthquakes.
Safety was previously left up to the operators, relying on their self-interest in their own investments to be incentive for implementing adequate measures. Fukushima Dai-ichi operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. came under harsh criticism for underestimating the tsunami risk and building a seawall that was less than half the height of one that hit the plant two years ago.