IAEA begins review of Japan's nuclear stress tests

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 23, 2012 6:43 AM

TOKYO (Reuters) - A team of U.N. nuclear experts on Monday began a review of tests conducted by Japan to prove the safety of its nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima radiation crisis.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Agency's (IAEA) team of 10 experts will be in Japan until January 31.

"We are conducting a review that they (the Japanese government) requested of their methodology and approach for conducting comprehensive safety assessments or stress tests," James Lyons, the leader of the IAEA team, told reporters.

Public anxiety about nuclear safety since Fukushima, where the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems and triggered reactor meltdowns and radiation leaks, causing mass evacuations and widespread contamination, has prevented the restart of reactors shut for maintenance.

Only five of the nation's 54 nuclear reactors remain in operation.

Japan's watchdog Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) completed a review of the tests last week, and said they showed the reactors were capable of withstanding a severe shock similar to the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima plant.

The Fukushima disaster has prompted a major shift in Japan's energy policy, with the country now looking to reduce its reliance on nuclear power. It had aimed to increase its share prior to the disaster.

In a rare protest, a group of citizen observers delayed for hours a hearing at the trade ministry on Wednesday, at which the nuclear watchdog presented to experts its first completed review of stress test results for two reactors from Fukui prefecture's Ohi nuclear power plant.

The IAEA team is spending Monday and Tuesday meeting officials in Tokyo and will travel on Wednesday to the Ohi nuclear power station in Fukui prefecture, western Japan, for a firsthand look at how Japan's nuclear safety agency conducts the stress tests. It plans to present the results of their review on January 31, Lyons said.

Regional gvoernments hosting nuclear plants have so far refused their restarts, and the central government in Tokyo is keen to avert a power crunch.

To avoid a power shortage Japan has pushed for the restart of the nuclear reactors by proving their safety through stress tests, although some local governments that host nuclear plants have said these tests were not enough, requesting that findings from the Fukushima disaster also be considered.

"We will not be focusing on whether or not its acceptable to restart any of the plants. That is totally a responsibility of the Japanese government and we would not make any determination in that area," Lyons said.

(Reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)