Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. started loading nuclear fuel into a reactor on Monday at an idle plant northwest of Tokyo as part of preparations to potentially restart the facility.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority granted approval earlier in the day for the loading of the No. 7 reactor at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. However, the timing of the restart remains uncertain.

TEPCO has yet to restart any of its nuclear reactors that were halted after a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

File photo taken from a Kyodo News airplane in April 2021 shows the Unit 6 (R) and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station in Niigata Prefecture. (Kyodo)

It is expected to take about two weeks of round-the-clock work to complete the loading of 872 fuel assemblies into the reactor pressure vessel.

TEPCO will confirm the safety by testing the function of control rods and emergency core cooling systems, among other things, for about a month after the loading.

It will increase the number of night shift workers from eight to 51 and prepare portable radiation monitoring posts in addition to fixed ones.

Niigata Gov. Hideyo Hanazumi has yet to announce whether he will agree to restart the reactor, and it is rare for a nuclear plant operator to start refueling one without local consent. The governor has been calling for extensive discussions on measures to ensure people's safety in the event of a nuclear accident.

Around 60 people gathered to hand a letter of protest to a TEPCO official and staged a demonstration in front of JR Niigata Station against loading nuclear fuel.


"I am not convinced at all because there are people who are still suffering from (the consequences of) the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident," said Ayako Oga, a 51-year-old farmer from Agano, Niigata Prefecture.

She had to evacuate from the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture after the 2011 disaster. Okuma is one of the two municipalities hosting the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Since the nuclear disaster, all 12 reactors restarted elsewhere in the country have received local consent before nuclear refueling.

The No. 7 unit of the plant, which supplies electricity to the Tokyo metropolitan area and its vicinity, cleared safety screenings by the nuclear regulator in 2017.

However, safety flaws identified at the plant led the NRA to issue an operational ban, which was in force from April 2021 until its lifting in December following an inspection of strengthened counterterrorism measures at the site.

The central government has been seeking the governor's approval for the restart as it aims to reintroduce nuclear power production to resource-poor Japan's energy supply.

Hanazumi has said challenges remain concerning how to evacuate residents if an accident occurs, particularly in light of the powerful Jan. 1 Noto Peninsula earthquake in nearby Ishikawa Prefecture and heavy snow in the prefecture in 2022.

Meanwhile, mayors in the two municipalities that host the facility have taken a positive stance toward the proposed restart.

The seven-reactor facility that straddles the city of Kashiwazaki and the village of Kariwa has a maximum output of 8.212 million kilowatts and is one of the world's largest electricity producers.

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