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Reactor restarts in Japan

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

No power reactors have operated in Japan since 16 September 2013 but the slow process of restarting reactors is in train and the first restarts − Kyushu's two reactors at Sendai − will likely occur in the first half of this year. Next in line are Takahama #3 and #4.

Twelve utilities have applied to restart 21 reactors, and further applications will follow (Japan has a total of 48 operable reactors). The World Nuclear Association cites a 'high case' scenario developed by Itochu Corporation, with about 10 reactor restarts annually and a total of up to 35 restarts within five years.1

The Japanese public remains sceptical. A November 2014 poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that twice as many respondents oppose reactor restarts as support them (56:28).2 More than 16,000 people gathered in Tokyo last September to protest against the decision to approve the restart of the Sendai reactors.3 Of the 18,711 comments on the government's draft basic energy plan, 94.4% opposed reactor restarts, while only 1.1% were in favour.4

On the other hand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party comfortably won the December 2014 election, and the government is intent on reactor restarts. Public opposition will delay many reactor restart approval processes and it may force the closure of at least a few reactors (in addition to those already slated for closure).

The government/corporate collusion that was a central feature of Japan's pre-Fukushima 'nuclear village' is re-emerging (if it ever went away). Junko Edahiro, chief executive of Japan for Sustainability, noted in a November 2014 speech: "Before the Abe administration, I was a member of an energy committee, an advisory body for the government charged with providing input on energy policies until 2030 for Japan. We had 25 members, of whom myself and seven others were not in favor of nuclear power. It was a small contingent, but this was still a huge departure from the past because citizens and experts against nuclear power have never been assigned as members of a governmental advisory body. The new administration, however, restructured the committee, eliminating anyone against nuclear power. ... In Japan we have what some people refer to as a "nuclear village": a group of government officials, industries, and academia notorious for being strongly pro-nuclear. There has been little change in this group, and the regulatory committee to oversee nuclear policies and operations is currently headed by a well-known nuclear proponent."5

With the nuclear village back in charge, familiar patterns are re-emerging. A November 2014 editorial in Japan Times, commenting on the Sendai restart approval, said the "move contains serious safety and procedural problems" such as inadequate evacuation plans, the lack of a permanent off-site command centre in the case of an emergency, the exclusion of eight municipalities from the approval process, and numerous other problems. "As the seemingly last key hurdle for the restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant is lifted," Japan Times editorialised, "a dangerous precedent has been set and many fundamental questions remain unanswered."6

One post-Fukushima reform that has not yet been destroyed is TEPCO's outside advisory committee, the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee, chaired by former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Dale Klein.7 Klein said late last year that TEPCO should convene a panel of foreign operators to review safety standards.

"I would like to see what I call a readiness review," Klein told Reuters. "You've got regulatory aspects – Do you meet everything? Do you have right training? – and then, I think, because of Fukushima Daiichi, the Japanese public would feel better if another group came in and said operationally they are ready. I have been pushing for that."8

So, might TEPCO appoint an outside committee to review safety standards and supplement the work of the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee? A more likely outcome is that the Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee itself will be abolished.

Permanent reactor shut-downs

A minimum of five reactors will be permanently shut down (in addition to the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors).9 The five reactors are Kansai's Mihama #1 and #2, Japan Atomic Power's Tsuruga 1, Chugoku's Shimane 1, and Kyushu's Genkai 1. All are relatively small (320−529 MW), and by October 2015 all will be more than 40 years old. Another two reactors, Kansai's Takahama #1 #2, which began commercial operation in 1974 and 1975, may also be shut down although Kansai may fight to restart them.

Other reactors may also be permanently shut down. Cantor Fitzgerald forecasts that in the long-term 32 of the 48 reactors will restart and the other 16 shut down.10 One of the other candidates for permanent closure is Tsuruga #2 − Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority disagrees with Japan Atomic Power Corporation about seismic risks.11

TEPCO's plan to restart reactors #6 and #7 at the Kashiwazaki−Kariwa plant (badly damaged by an earthquake in 2007) is meeting stiff resistance from the governor of Niigata province, Hirohiko Izumida. The governor says TEPCO must address its "institutionalized lying" before it can expect to restart reactors.12 He wants TEPCO executives held accountable for the negligence that led to the Fukushima disaster, but government prosecutors have refused to bring charges against TEPCO executives.13

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, is reportedly considering revising accounting rules to lighten the financial burden on utilities that decommission nuclear reactors, with decisions expected by March.9 In other words, the government is planning to do what the government does best: throw taxpayers' money at the nuclear industry.

Among other smoke-and-mirror tricks:
•    Reactors are limited to a 40-year operating life ... but utilities can apply for a 20-year extension.
•    Government and industry are not (yet) promoting the construction of new reactors, but efforts are being made to move ahead with reactors under construction before March 2011. Expect double-dipping and triple-dipping: the closure of a small number of reactors is being used to quell opposition to reactor restarts, then the closure of the same reactors will be used to quell opposition to the completion of reactors under construction and reactors in the planning stages.

Debates over the future of the Monju fast reactor and the Rokkasho reprocessing plant will add spice to Japan's nuclear debate this year. Monju may be doomed, but Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd hopes to begin operating Rokkasho in early 2016.1

2. 6 Jan 2015, 'Editorial: Consensus-building process needed for nuclear policy decisions',
3. 23 Sept 2014, 'What's your anti-disaster plan?' Thousands protest Japanese nuclear revival',
4. Atsushi Komori, 12 Nov 2014, 'Energy plan overlooked flat-out opposition to nuclear power, analysis shows',
5. Junko Edahiro, November 2014, 'Toward a Sustainable Japan: Fukushima Accidents Show Japan's Challenges', JFS Newsletter No.147,
6. 12 Nov 2014, 'Bad precedent for nuclear restart',
8. Kentaro Hamada, 2 Dec 2014, 'Japan's Tepco needs safety review from foreign nuclear operators − adviser',
9. 11 Jan 2015, '5 old nuclear reactors headed for decommissioning scrap heap',
10. 1 Jan 2015, 'Japan turns ignition key on efforts to restart its nuclear fleet',
11. 20 Nov 2014, 'Nuclear watchdog panel: Fault under Tsuruga reactor is active',
12. Antoni Slodkowski and Kentaro Hamada, 29 Oct 2013, 'Tepco can't yet be trusted to restart world's biggest nuclear plant: governor',
13. Reuters, 22 Jan 2015, 'Prosecutors won't indict former Tepco execs over Fukushima',