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Japan Closer To Restart Idled Nuclear Reactors – Analysis

The nuclear issue had emerged as an extremely sensitive one in Japan after its experience of atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 that brought World War II to a close. Japan remained under the US’ extended nuclear deterrence for its security. However, nuclear as a source of energy remained a priority for the government as a means to meet the country’s energy needs, until the nuclear accident in Fukushima triggered by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011, when the sentiment against nuclear intensified, leading the government to stop all the 48 nuclear reactors from operation. Being a resource-deficient country, Japan used to source almost a quarter of its energy needs from the nuclear alone.

Fukushima led to a dramatic rethink of Japan’s energy policy. Having experienced difficulties to readjust to the new situation, the government led by Abe Shinzo of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is keen to restart some of the reactors in his growth strategy if the reactors pass through stringent safety regulations to prevent Fukushima-like occurrences. The path to achieve such an aim is not easy but some incremental move to achieve the aim has been made. The Abe government firmly believes that Japan has no choice but to return to the nuclear energy age if the ailing economy has to be resuscitated.

Global impact

The impact of Fukushima was felt not in Japan alone but across continent. Though triggered by the earthquake and then tsunami, these two became secondary news items when in its aftermath countless tons of radioactive water was released into the ocean, dooming the local fishing industry for many decades to come. A large swath of land area around Fukushima became unsafe for human life. The government was suddenly faced with the huge responsibility of permanently evacuating and resettling over 170,000 people.

The repercussions of the incident were far reaching globally. Public opinion against nuclear energy gathered sudden steam and nuclear as a source faced critical blow. Many countries across continent started revisiting their nuclear policies. Malaysia, Philippines, Kuwait and Bahrain abandoned plans to develop nuclear reactors. China suspended its nuclear development program for some time. Germany started to close down its old nuclear reactors to prevent risk of accident and toyed with the plan to completely shut down all of them by 2022.1

Before Fukushima happened, nuclear power was seen as the cleanest non-renewable power source, far exceeding in efficiency the coal or natural gas based power. Fukushima led to a dramatic turnaround to such perception. It dawned that if there is a single mistake, either misplaced builds location, or security breach, or even just human error, it could create unmanageable and unimaginable outcomes for generations, across vast swathes of land and sea.

Policy of Abe government

The Abe government wants Japan’s idled nuclear reactors to be switched back on. The government has approved an energy plan that backs the use of nuclear power, despite public opposition after the Fukushima disaster. The plan reverses an earlier decision to phase out nuclear power by the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The present opposition DPJ, which was in power during the time of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster, had promised to phase out nuclear power. Abe’s plan is to undo this. If the plan is allowed to go ahead, it will set the stage for the government to restart some reactors, all of which are currently idled. The move comes days after the first Fukushima evacuees returned to their homes inside the exclusion zone. Under the plan, the government would proceed with activating nuclear power plants that had met tough regulatory standards, while also working to reduce nuclear dependence as much as possible. The plan did not specify Japan’s future energy mix, but promised to increase its reliance on renewable energy.2 Majority of the Japanese people distrust the government’s assurances that nuclear power is safe. Before Fukushima, Japan had relied on nuclear energy for almost a quarter of its energy needs. Though Abe has been persuading the law makers to back his stance, his decision is unpopular with a wary public.3

Even Abe’s aim to revive nuclear power generation has been criticised by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a firm opponent to nuclear power following the Fukushima meltdowns. He disputes the government’s claim that Japan has the world’s toughest safety standards and says that they are not really tough compared with regulations in the US, France or Finland. Addressing a symposium in Tokyo in October 2014, Koizumi urged Abe to break away from nuclear power, and said “people would not cooperate” over the matter of finding a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste unless the government vows “not to increase nuclear waste anymore.”4

Japan shut down its last functioning nuclear reactor 4 at Ohi in western Japan on 16 September 2013, with no timetable for a restart. With no supply of electricity from the nuclear source since then, this has been the longest shut-down since the 1960s.5 Japan went without nuclear power during May and June 2012, but operator Kepco was allowed to restart its reactor at Ohi. Getting the reactors back online is a vital part of Abe’s plan to turn the economy around. Since the Fukushima disaster, Japan has been forced to import huge amounts of coal, liquid natural gas and other fuels. These imports have contributed to the huge trade deficits posted by Japan since 2011. The average household electricity bill has risen by 30 per cent since Fukushima, denting the government’s attempts to boost consumer spending. If the consumption tax is hiked as planned in October 2015 to 10 per cent, it could further depress consumer spending.

Though all 48 commercial reactors in Japan are currently offline since September 2013, Abe however is pushing for the restart of reactors that have cleared the post-Fukushima regulations. The two-reactor Sendai’s Nos. 1 and 2 reactors in Kagoshima Prefecture in south-western Japan’s main island of Kyushu operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co. may go back online as early as the beginning of 2015.6 In May, Koizumi established a body to promote renewable energy together with another former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who unsuccessfully ran in the Tokyo gubernatorial election in February on an antinuclear platform.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government introduced more stringent safety standards in July 2013 setting a higher hurdle for reactors. The Sendai plant emerged in March 2014 as the leading candidate for resumption after clearing key agendas related to earthquake and tsunami hazards that could affect the plant. On 10 September 2014, the five-member decision-making Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) panel of the nuclear safety regulator unanimously approved the final version of its screening report. The regulatory watchdog received 17,819 comments from the public after the panel approved a draft version on July 16. Some criticised the regulator’s judgment that the chance of volcanic eruptions affecting the Sendai plant located in the region of active volcanic sites were small, while others conveyed technical concern that safety measures against a variety of possible hazards such as tsunami and cyber attacks are inadequate.7

As the next step, Kyushu Electric Power Co., the operator of the Sendai plant, will have to submit to the NRA construction plans that include designs of equipment and the company’s new safety regulations detailing operation procedures and accident responses.
Kyushu Electric will also have to gain the consent of local governments. The Satsuma-Sendai municipal government and the Kagoshima prefectural government have both indicated a willingness to go along with resumption of operations. Concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of the prefectural and municipal government’s evacuation plans in the event of an emergency at the plant. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is working out a coordination program with the local and central governments to meet emergency situation. Though the utility has said it would use the current observation system to detect signs of a major volcanic eruption in the vicinity of the Sendai plant, volcanologists have raised opposition to Kyushu Electric’s policy.8 On experts’ advice, the NRA has asked Kyushu Electric to take additional measures against possible eruptions.

On 28 October 2014, the local city assembly approved restarting, a step towards the first resumption of a nuclear facility in the country since new regulations were adopted following the Fukushima meltdowns. The city assembly of Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, adopted a petition in favour of restarting the two-reactor Sendai plant and became the first nuclear facility to meet the stricter post-Fukushima safety requirements. Though Satsumasendai Mayor Hideo Iwakiri gave the green light for the restart once operator Kyushu Electric Power Co. finishes the necessary paperwork and on-site operational checks, other municipalities around the Sendai complex said it was not acceptable to bring the plant back online without their consent, citing safety concerns among locals. Kagoshima Governor Yuichiro Ito, however, said that it was not necessary to obtain approval from the municipalities that do not host the plant as it is not a legally required process.9

What Next?

When Shunichi Tanaka, Chairman of the nuclear watchdog confirmed that Kyushu Electric had ensured the level of safety it was looking for, Japan is set to begin the next phase of a nuclear restart as more reactors pass muster. Yet, the government’s nuclear policies are bound to remain controversial as the people continue to feel unease with nuclear issue. However, once the Sendai reactors are fired up, it will spell the end of Japan’s zero-nuclear status. Close
The Sendai plant may come back online as early as winter.

Though all of Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors remain offline, applications are pending for safety checks at 18 more reactors at 12 plants, which the authority hopes to proceed with efficiently.
The go-ahead from the NRA in July 2014 came after it issued a more than 400-page safety report, saying two reactors at the Sendai plant in southern Japan were safe to switch back on. This was followed by a month-long public consultation period. Any restart quickly was not possible because the operator was to get two more NRA approvals for other facilities at the site. It is not clear how the Abe government is going to gain the consent of the communities living near the plant.

Greenpeace Japan argues that Japan has survived without nuclear power for more than a year and charged the government of “ignoring the lessons of Fukushima and attempting to prevent the renewable energy revolution, trying to take the nation back to its dependence on dangerous and unreliable nuclear power”.10 Though the Abe government has been trying to persuade a wary public that the world’s third largest economy must return to an energy source that once supplied quarter of its power, widespread anti-nuclear sentiment has simmered in Japan since the Fukushima meltdown, sparking the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.

Under pressure from the NRA, Kyushu Electric’s Genkai Nos. 3 and 4 reactors and Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama Nos. 3 and 4 reactors are upgrading their safety checks. These facilities have scaled up the level of earthquake protection and ready for final NRA checks. Measures have been implemented at both sites to ensure power in the event of an accident. If these facilities pass NRA certification by the 2014-end, they will likely be brought on stream by the spring of 2015. Earthquake-proofing remains an issue at many facilities. Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata No. 3, Kansai Electric’s Oi Nos. 3 and 4, and Hokkaido Electric Power’s Tomari Nos. 1-3 reactors have a long way to go and it is difficult to tell when these will pass inspection. Implementing safety measures will take time and it is unlikely that they may resume operations until mid-2015 or later, depending how fast the safety standards are put in place.11

Complexity

The situation in other eight reactors is far worse and may take even longer time. Tokyo Electric Power’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nos. 6 and 7 are in this category where testing has barely begun. Like the reactors at the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi plant, these are boiling water reactors, which must meet stricter requirements than pressurized water reactors, such as those at the Sendai plant.
As nuclear power makes a comeback with the prospect of a restart of the Sendai reactor, the government must address to three issues urgently. One is how to handle old reactors. The basic energy plan adopted in April 2014 calls for minimizing dependence on nuclear power. How is this going to be achieved without decommissioning reactors whose safety is difficult to ensure remains unclear. If the government strictly follows what it envisages in the basic energy plan, it will have to push utilities hard to decide soonest whether to scrap aging facilities.

The second issue is decommissioning. Since the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, it remains the only facility officially slated for decommissioning. Decommissioning and scrapping reactors come with huge cost. For each scrapped reactor, the utilities’ loss comes to the tune of 10 billion yen ($93 million). It also remains unclear how the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will help the utilities so that their losses are reduced. One way could be allowing companies to pass them on to customers in the form on higher rates, which could further complicate the issue.

The third challenge is how to dispose of the radioactive waste generated during the dismantling process since decommissioning work takes 20 to 30 years. No decision has been made on this. The NRA plans to speed up discussions regarding a decommissioning oversight system and it is a long way to go. Since the basic energy plan envisages some level of nuclear capacity, identifying it as an important power source, it remain unclear how much that dependence would be. During the zero-nuclear period, utilities focussed on such means as fossil-fuel-burning plants, raising emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 10% from pre-accident levels.12 Even if the 20 reactors for which utilities have applied for testing return to operation, they will likely supply at most 10% of Japan’s electricity, a drop from 30 per cent that it accounted for during pre-Fukushima period. Once the aging reactors are scrapped, Japan will be unable to hold down emissions without building more nuclear facilities. Is the government ready to take this controversial step is a tough question to answer? Even if reactors that are 40 years old or more are weeded out, it remains unclear if the government can win support for the long process of restarts from a public that turned against nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Banishing nuclear as a power source will cripple the country’s economy over the long run. Such measures will undo some of the measures that Abenomics has rendered to resuscitate the ailing economy. The inevitable rise in electricity rates will have a significant impact on the nation’s foundering economic recovery.

Household power prices already jumped 20% since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, as swelling fossil fuel costs were passed on to customers. Seven utilities have raised rates, and nuclear-reliant Hokkaido Electric has applied for another increase of up to 17 %. If it takes a longer time to bring reactors back online, there is greater likelihood that others will also ask for further rate hike.13 Chairman of Tepco Fumio Sudo told a conference on 4 September that his company would not seek any rate hike until December 2014 and would prioritize cutting costs, if restart of its key Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant could be possible. But if Tepco and Kansai Electric seek rate hikes, it could put pressure on Abe if the consumption tax will be further hiked to 10 per cent in October 2015 as planned.

Closing aging reactors?

Under post-Fukushima rules, reactors are supposed to be decommissioned after 40 years. They can receive a 20-year extension but that is subject to more rigorous and costly safety regulations. As many as two-thirds of Japan’s 48 idled nuclear units may never return to operation because of the high costs, local opposition or seismic risks, while one-third will probably come back online eventually. Though the Sendai units have obtained the NRA approval for restart, the units still have to undergo operational safety checks before given the green light to restart. Utilities that want to extend the operating life of old reactors must submit detailed safety applications by July 2015, and explain how those facilities could be updated to meet the tougher safety standards put in place.14

Extending life of the aging reactors comes with huge cost and would make no economic sense for massive investments. For example, scrapping the No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear facility located in western Japan’s Fukui Prefecture, both over 40 years old, operated by Kansai Electric could be a viable option. Being old with relatively small capacity, restarting them would ring only a limited profit boost and cost several hundred billions of yen for inspections and safety measures. If Kansai Electric decides to scrap the reactors in the current fiscal year ending in March 2015, its extraordinary losses could be to the tune of 30 billion yen ($285 million). Kyushu Electric may also see merit to decommission its 38-year-old Genkai No. 1 reactor. According to Chugoku Electric Power Co President Tomohide Karita, as told in March, the utility was considering scrapping the 40-year-old Shimane No.1 reactor. The government is likely to ask the operators of 12 reactors that began operations before 1980 to decide by the end of the year whether to decommission them. That way, the government expects to gain public support to restart newer units. There are News 12 reactors that will reach 40-year limit within five years and the government is asking operators to come up with plans for de-commissioning older units by the end of 2014.

Future

If the principle of decommissioning nuclear reactors after 40 years of operation is applied strictly and no new nuclear plants or reactors are allowed to be constructed, there will be no nuclear power plants operating in Japan in 2049. Therefore, renewal of aged nuclear plants and reactors is an important task for the government.

Electric power companies have also been faced with the growing burden of additional safety measures. The key to a stable power supply lies in enabling utilities to continue operating their nuclear power businesses in the long term. As a first, the government needs to work for a standard price set on electricity generated at nuclear plants, which would guarantee a certain level of revenue to power companies. If utilities generating electricity resort to rate-cutting to outdo the competitor, the strategy will work against the companies and would not be economically sustainable. If the companies are guaranteed fixed revenue that would help them to strategise plans to build new nuclear reactors, each of this is likely to cost 400 billion yen. Therefore a standard pricing system could be a good option.

There are some good examples in Britain and the US and Japan can as well examine the merits of such systems and adopt something similar to that suitable to Japan.

Japan aims to decide the percentage of electricity to be generated by nuclear power by late 2015 when a U.N. climate conference is to be held in Paris. Though in the revised national energy plan adopted in April 2014, nuclear power generation remains as an “important base-load power source”, the debate on how much atomic power should play in the country’s energy-mix remains inconclusive. As the country debates, no breakdown for the proportion of power to be generated by nuclear power was included in the plan as it was difficult to determine how many reactors would be in a position to resume operation amid widespread public concern over nuclear safety as well as meeting stringent NRA safety standards. Nuclear is and shall remain a serious challenge for Japan to cope with.

Notes:
1. “Amazing CCTV Footage of Japan’s Tsunami in 2011”, by lifeintheknow, 20 October 2014, http://www.lifeintheknow.com/the-aftermath-of-japans-tsunami-in-2011/
2. See, Rajaram Panda, “Nuclear Power Back in Focus in Japan’s Basic Energy Plan 2014 – Analysis”, 14 April 2014, http://www.eurasiareview.com/14042014-nuclear-power-back-in-focus-in-japans-basic-energy-plan-2014-analysis/
3. “Japan approves energy plan backing nuclear power”, 11 April 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-26984113
4. “Ex-PM Koizumi raps Abe’s aim to revive nuclear power”, 23 October 2014, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20141023p2g00m0dm040000c.html
5. “Japan halts last nuclear reactor at Ohi”, 15 September 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24099022
6. “Japan moving toward nuclear restart, but hurdles remain”, 11 September 2014, http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Japan-moving-toward-nuclear-restart-but-hurdles-remain
7. “Japan nuclear plant gets safety OK, moves closer to resumption”, Mainichi Japan, 10 September 2014, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20140910p2g00m0dm037000c.html
8. Toshio Kawada, “NRA approves safety at Kagoshima nuclear plant; paperwork next step”, 10 September 2014, http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/fukushima/AJ201409100050
9. “Local city assembly OKs restart of nuclear plant”, Mainichi Japan, 28 October 2014, http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20141028p2g00m0dm064000c.html
10. “Japan nuclear watchdog backs restart of 2 reactors”, 10 September 2014, http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/japan-nuclear-watchdog-backs-restart-of-2-reactors/article1-1262189.aspx
11. “Japan moving toward nuclear restart, but hurdles remain”,n.5
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Kentaro Hamada and Osamu Tsukimori, “Regulator gives OK to restart 2 Sendai reactors in Kyushu”, http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/regulators-expected-to-ok-nuclear-plant-restart-in-kyushu


About the Author

Dr. Rajaram Panda
Dr. Rajaram Panda
Professor Rajaram Panda, an eminent expert on the security and strategic issues of the Asia-Pacific, is currently ICCR Chair on Indian Studies Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. E-mail: [email protected]

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