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The Nuclear Regulation Authority on Wednesday officially decided on Japan's new safety requirements for reactors aimed at preventing recurrences of disasters like the one at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in 2011.
The new regulations are expected to take effect on July 8, paving the way for nuclear power plant operators to apply for the NRA's safety assessment as a step toward resuming the operation of their idled reactors.
While calling the regulations a "culmination" of discussions that have taken place since October last year, NRA commissioners acknowledged that the rules' application is a more important job for them and vowed to make efforts to further improve them.
"I think we have created a system that can be regarded as quite proper internationally. But its real value will be questioned during the screening process," NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka told Wednesday's meeting to discuss the issue.
Four major utilities are likely to file for safety screening for a maximum of 12 reactors at six plants as early as July, although it is unclear how long the process will take. Senior NRA officials said earlier it may take at least six months.
Under the new requirements, utilities will for the first time be obliged to put in place specific countermeasures against possible severe accidents like reactor core meltdowns, as well as against huge tsunami -- the direct cause of the Fukushima crisis.
Before the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, authorities had left it up to utilities whether to take steps against severe accidents, based on the assumption such disasters were extremely unlikely.
Utilities will now be required to equip reactors 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, while preparing emergency control rooms to guard reactor operations against any act of terrorism or natural disasters.
The NRA will also require the operators to make a stricter assessment of whether geological faults running underneath nuclear power plants are active and make sure that key facilities are designed to withstand the largest tsunami estimated to hit the sites, such as by installing seawalls.
The NRA, which was launched in September last year, has been devising the new regulations to replace the current ones that proved insufficient in the wake of the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The legal deadline for enacting the new safety criteria is July 18, but the power industry, which is struggling amid soaring fuel costs to boost nonnuclear thermal power generation, has been calling for earlier implementation so that utilities can start the procedure for restarting reactors as quickly as possible.
Of the 50 commercial reactors in Japan, only two in western Japan are currently online.
The four utilities seeking to swiftly apply for the NRA's safety screening are Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Kansai Electric Power Co., Shikoku Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co.
"We hope the NRA will promptly conduct safety screenings in an efficient way to address power shortages," an official of Kansai Electric Power, servicing an area centering on Osaka, said.
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