The operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant has been prevented from restarting its only operable atomic facility after a series of safety breaches, dealing a significant blow to Japanese attempts to resume nuclear power generation.
Japan’s nuclear regulator is to issue a “corrective action order” on Wednesday that would ban Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) from transporting new uranium fuel to its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture or loading fuel rods into its reactors.
The move in effect prevents Tepco from restarting the facility’s seven reactors, which it hopes would turn around its finances a decade after one of its two plants in Fukushima suffered a triple meltdown.
Tepco had hoped to bring two of seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa – the world’s biggest nuclear power plant with a capacity of 8,212 megawatts – back online to cut its operating costs by more than $800m (£580m) a year.
In March, however, it was heavily criticised after a series of safety and security breaches came to light, including an unauthorised employee accessing sensitive areas of the facility and a failure to protect nuclear materials.
Media reports said Wednesday’s decision was the first time the nuclear regulation authority – which was formed after the March 2011 disaster – had in effect banned a utility from operating a nuclear power plant.
Tepco has not commented on the move, but its shares fell by almost 4% in afternoon trading in Tokyo. The company has until late September to submit a report to regulators outlining improvements in the way it handles nuclear materials.
The agency will assess the changes before possibly removing the corrective order, a process that could take at least a year.
Tepco has said it can save $827m in fuel costs annually by restarting Kashiwazaki-Kariwa’s No 6 and 7 reactors, which have been offline since at least 2012.
When all seven of its reactors are in operation, the plant can generate enough power for 16m households.
Tepco faces an enormous bill for decommissioning costs and compensation claims by residents living near the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The regulator’s decision came a day after the government announced that Tepco would release more than 1m tonnes of contaminated water from Fukushima Daiichi into the Pacific Ocean, prompting an angry response from local fishers and neighbouring countries.
On Wednesday, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, instructed his country’s officials to look into ways to refer Japan’s move to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, including filing for an injunction.