Photo/IllutrationThe 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 operating extension of the Tokai No. 2 nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, which is approaching the end of its 40-year legal life span.

The decision by the Nuclear Regulation Authority effectively marks the end of government-mandated technical screening to allow Japan Atomic Power Co. to bring the offline plant back on stream.

But all sorts of questions and concerns remain.

There is not a good rationale for extending the life of the aging and currently idled single-reactor nuclear plant, which is located in the densely populated Tokyo metropolitan area.

Given the difficulties of evacuating the large population in surrounding areas if a serious accident occurs at the plant, the reactor should not be permitted to resume operations.

The rule that nuclear reactors should not in principle be allowed to operate for more than 40 years is designed to ensure that facilities based on outdated designs will be duly retired. This is a key component of the new stricter safety regulations introduced in the aftermath of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.

The life of a reactor can be extended by up to 20 years if approved by the NRA. When the new regulations were introduced, the government said that such permission would be granted only in “a very limited number of highly exceptional cases.”

The problem is that there are no clear criteria for allowing such exceptions. In fact, the Tokai No. 2 has become the fourth reactor to receive the nuclear watchdog’s green light to operate beyond the 40-year period.

If such exceptional cases keep cropping up and become the norm, the 40-year rule could end up being a dead letter.

It is clearly necessary to review the regulations on aging reactors from the viewpoint of steadily reducing the nation’s dependence on nuclear power generation.

About 960,000 people live within a 30-kilometer radius of the Tokai No. 2 plant, making it the most densely populated site among the nation's nuclear facilities.

Local governments in the zone are required by law to develop emergency evacuation plans.

The municipalities that are subject to the requirement have been struggling to draft feasible evacuation plans in the face of many formidable challenges, including the difficulty of securing the means to transport elderly and disabled residents.

The outlook for local government support for the plan is also dismal. The plant operator needs to obtain the consent of the local governments of Ibaraki Prefecture and Tokai, a village where the plant is located, to restart the reactor. Besides, five cities around the facility also have the effective right to decide whether to go along with the plan.

The municipal assembly of Mito, one of the five cities, and the mayor of another, Naka, have already expressed their opposition to the plan.

Another big hurdle for bringing the reactor back online is the huge cost of taking required safety measures, which has been estimated at more than 174 billion yen ($1.54 billion).

It is clearly impossible for Japan Atomic Power, which is on fragile financial footing, to raise the funds on its own, and the company is hoping for a financial injection from Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co., two major electric utilities that have a major stake in the plant operator and buy electricity from the company.

But TEPCO, the operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, has been put under effective state control as part of a program to bail out the utility facing a massive bill for compensation and cleanup work. It is now kept alive with huge amounts of taxpayer money.

It is highly doubtful whether TEPCO is qualified to rescue another troubled company.

If Japan Atomic Power starts work to restart the plant without obtaining the consent of local governments, it could end up wasting an enormous amount of money when the issue is raised later.

It should first focus on talks with the local communities involved. TEPCO, for its part, should rigorously assess the risks and the economic viability of supporting Japan Atomic Power’s plan and provide satisfactory explanations about its decisions.

The local governments involved have a grave responsibility to ensure the safety of local residents. The Tokai No. 2 plant was also damaged by the tsunami generated by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake that crippled the Fukushima plant in 2011, and had problems putting the reactor in a state of cold shutdown.

The prefectural and municipal governments are facing some weighty safety questions, including whether deep-seated anxiety about the plant among local residents can possibly be assuaged and whether they can develop effective emergency evacuation plans and systems.

These local entities need to ponder such questions as their priority must be to ensure that local residents remain safe.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 8