TOKYO (AP) — A court Wednesday refused to let two nuclear reactors restart operations in western Japan, saying their risk assessment is too optimistic and safety measures insufficient despite lessons from the Fukushima disaster.
The denial by the district court in Japan's nuclear energy hub of Fukui is the first since the crisis and comes as some Japanese reactors are in the final stages of safety screening before a restart, and plaintiffs and their anti-nuclear supporters say the court ruling could sway local acceptance.
Anti-nuclear sentiment and the public's distrust to utility operators and authorities have persisted since the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which caused more than 100,000 people to leave homes nearby due to radiation.
All 50 workable reactors have been idle for repairs or safety checks since, except for the two Ohi reactors, No. 3 and No. 4, which temporarily resumed operation in 2012-2013 as an exception decided by the government to curb the summertime power crunch.
Nearly 200 people who live near the Ohi plant sued its operator in November 2012, and the court ordered it not to restart the two reactors. Kansai Electric Power Co. immediately appealed Wednesday's ruling. Technically, it can operate the reactors if they pass the safety standard while the case is pending.
Judge Hideaki Higuchi said the quake estimates for the reactors are too optimistic and the emergency safety measures and backups to secure the key cooling systems remain insufficient. The triple meltdowns at Fukushima were caused by the failures of the reactors' cooling systems after external power and backup generators were destroyed by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, told a news conference he hoped the "sensible" court ruling would boost a phase-out of nuclear power in Japan. About 30 lawsuits against nuclear plants and utilities are pending nationwide, NHK public television reported.
Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said the ruling doesn't affect ongoing safety checks.
"We make a decision whether a reactor meets the current standard solely based on science and technology. After that, a decision is not ours," Tanaka said, meaning the startup is a government decision.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government stands by its policy to start up all reactors that cleared the regulatory standards: "I believe it is appropriate to restart reactors after objective safety judgment under the safety standard that we believe is the world's toughest."
At Fukushima Dai-ichi, its operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. began releasing groundwater pumped from the plant's least contaminated areas into the ocean, keeping the water separate from more-toxic water that the operator is struggling to store.
The 560 tons of groundwater had been deemed clean enough to release to the ocean without treatment. The bypass system is key to how water is managed at the plant as the volume of contaminated water continues to grow.
Nuclear experts and officials say storage space is running out and more-contaminated water must be also released into the sea eventually, but the public has strongly resisted.
TEPCO spokeswoman Mayumi Yoshida said the plant is continuing to pump groundwater for temporary storage, though the timing of the next release is undecided.
If effective, the bypass system could reduce the amount of groundwater inflow by up to one-quarter of the current 400-ton daily increase.