A Japanese court on Wednesday rejected local residents' calls to halt the restart of a nuclear reactor in northeastern Japan, ruling their concerns about flaws in emergency evacuation plans are not relevant as it cannot be assumed a serious accident is likely.

The Sendai District Court ruling came as Tohoku Electric Power Co. aims to resume operations at the No. 2 unit of the Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture in February 2024, becoming the first in the area hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami to restart.

Plaintiffs and others head to the Sendai District Court on May 24, 2023, ahead of a ruling on a lawsuit seeking to halt the restart of the No. 2 nuclear reactor of the Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture. (Kyodo)

"It cannot be assumed that a specific danger of an accident exists that leads to the abnormal release of radioactive materials," said Presiding Judge Mitsuhiro Saito.

Given the uncertainty over the potential danger, the judge also said there is no need to take into account whether the evacuation plans are effective when handing down his decision.

The lawsuit was filed by 17 residents of the city of Ishinomaki. The plaintiffs argued the evacuation plans prepared by the city and prefectural governments are insufficient.

If an evacuation order is issued following a nuclear accident, residents will be unable to escape a 30-kilometer radius of the plant for an extended period due to traffic congestion, posing a high risk of radiation exposure, they argued.

They also claimed the traffic situation would make it unlikely that utility and local government officials could establish an inspection site for Ishinomaki residents to test whether they have been contaminated with radiation before they head to evacuation centers outside the 30-km zone.

A plaintiff (R) holds up a banner with the words "unjust ruling" outside the Sendai District Court on May 24, 2023, after the court rejected calls to halt the restart of the No. 2 unit of the Onagawa nuclear power plant in Miyagi Prefecture. (Kyodo)

Nobuo Hara, the 81-year-old spokesperson for the plaintiffs, told reporters they will "consult with lawyers with a view to filing an appeal."

Mitsuko Obata, a 73-year-old resident of Sendai who supported the plaintiffs, was disappointed.

"At the time (of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident), there were fears that nobody would be able to live in the whole of the Tohoku region. I don't want nuclear reactors in the devastated areas to resume operations."

Tohoku Electric sought a dismissal of the lawsuit on the basis that emergency responses, including the evacuation plans, had been approved by the country's nuclear disaster prevention council.

Following the ruling, the utility said it remains committed to pursuing the restart of the reactor in February 2024 as planned.

"The court acknowledged our claim," the company said in a statement. "We will continue to cooperate as much as possible to improve the effectiveness of the evacuation plans."

The three nuclear reactors at the Onagawa plant shut down after the plant was hit by the massive earthquake on March 11, 2011. The No. 2 reactor cleared national safety screening in February 2020 and later won local consent to resume operations.

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