A worker in protective gear looks at storage tanks under construction at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2014.
A worker in protective gear looks at storage tanks under construction at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2014. - 
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Early next week, much of the energy world’s eyes will be on the Japanese island of Kyushu. That is the site of the first nuclear plant restart since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Japan has since mothballed all its nuclear plants, and a lot is riding on operators flipping the switch back on successfully.

Japan’s nuclear plants have put in redundancies since the disaster, like cooling water tanks that only require gravity instead of electricity, and backup power for when the main source goes out.

But until operators fire the plant back up, they can’t be sure the reactor’s key plumbing works, including the pipes and gaskets that handle 200-plus degree water.

“There are things that you can’t test until the plant gets up and running, kind of like a car that’s been idled for awhile or in the shop for awhile," says David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It’s really when the car goes out on the road that certain things can be tested.”

At issue is not just hardware; nuclear safety culture has to restart right as well.

Dale Klein of the University of Texas is a former U.S. regulator and heads a reform panel at Tokyo Electric Power. He says pre-Fukushima, Japanese culture didn’t allow enough questions, such as, “is the tsunami wall high enough?”

“If the safety engineers would have questioned, 'Well, how high should it be? What was our margins? What would you do if one comes in higher than that?’ it would have made things different,” Klein says.

Going forward, Klein says nuclear utility companies have to self-report errors they find and regulators under a new regime that prioritizes safety have to encourage assertiveness.

If the process is bumpy, the Japanese public could question restarts at other plants.

“There’s a list of about 20 that have applied,” says Steven Kraft, senior technical adviser at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. “Once you’ve got one that’s OK, it becomes a lot easier to know what to look for going forward.”  

What’s at stake? Japanese proponents want nuclear to grow to 20 percent of its energy mix; it was over 30 percent before Fukushima.

And around the world, some 70 nuclear plants are now being built and would rather avoid more bad news out of Japan.


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Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott