Photo/IllutrationResidential districts loom close to the Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant operated by Japan Atomic Power Co. in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Asahi shimbun file photo)

The nation's nuclear watchdog on Nov. 7 formally approved a 20-year extension of the only nuclear reactor in the Tokyo metropolitan area, although local communities will have the final say on the restart.

Operator Japan Atomic Power Co. will need the consent of the Ibaraki prefectural government, as well as six local municipalities, including the village of Tokai, where its aging Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant is located.

The company faced having to prepare to decommission the plant's 40-year-old reactor if it failed to meet a Nov. 27 deadline on revised and more stringent safety standards implemented by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture.

After the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the operational life of nuclear reactors was set at up to 40 years in principle. But power companies can continue to operate their facilities for an additional 20 years if their reactors pass the NRA screening.

So far, all requests to the NRA to extend the operating life of old reactors have been approved.

The reactor at the Tokai No. 2 plant is the fourth to clear the NRA for extended operations since the Fukushima disaster. It is located about 120 kilometers from the heart of Tokyo.

The 1.1-gigawatt boiling water reactor is the only unit at the Tokai No. 2 plant and is of the same design as the crippled reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The Tokai No. 2 plant was also affected by the tsunami generated by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

It is the first time for a reactor affected by the tsunami to be approved for an operational extension. It is also the first boiling water reactor to gain such approval.

The NRA examined the reactor’s pressure vessel and other equipment, and concluded that the unit could operate safely until November 2038.

But it remains unclear if Japan Atomic Power can restart the plant under its earliest time frame of 2021, due to local opposition.

In October, Mayor Toru Umino of Naka, one of the six municipalities around the plant, announced his opposition to the extension. The city assembly of Mito, another municipality, adopted a resolution against the extension in June.

About 960,000 people live within a 30-km radius of the plant, making it the most densely populated site among the nation's nuclear facilities.

After the Fukushima disaster, municipalities in close proximity to a nuclear plant were required to craft an evacuation plan to respond to a nuclear emergency.

But only three of the 14 municipalities around the Tokai No. 2 nuclear plant within that range have done so due to the difficulty of arranging transportation for such a large number of people.

Bringing the reactor back online is expected to cost Japan Atomic Power at least 174 billion yen ($1.54 billion), a sum that includes construction of a seawall and other safeguard measures.

The company hopes to have those measures in place by the end of March 2021.

It may well also have to spend tens of billions of yen in the future to meet a new requirement that nuclear facilities are able to contain damage from a terrorist attack.

TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS

May 20, 2014

Operator Japan Atomic Power Co. applies for an NRA safety screening under new reactor regulations

Nov. 24, 2017

Application for a screening of an extension of operations

Sept. 26, 2018

NRA certifies that the reactor’s safeguard measures meet the new regulations

Oct. 18

NRA approves plans to enhance the safety of the reactor

Nov. 7

NRA approves an operational extension

March 2021

Seawall and other safety measures to be completed

Plant to restart if Ibaraki prefectural government and six nearby municipalities give their consent