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Japan's nuclear export industry collapsing

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Japan Times reported in February 2017 that Japanese firms have attempted "with little success" to sell their nuclear technologies to countries as diverse as France, Vietnam, India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the United Arab Emirates.1

Since then, the prospects for Japan's nuclear export industry have gone from bad to worse. Hitachi's recent suspension of the Wylfa and Oldbury reactor projects in the UK is another nail in the coffin of Japan's nuclear export industry.

Last November, Toshiba announced its decision to liquidate its NuGen subsidiary, which was planning to build Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Moorside in the UK.2 As recently as June 2016, Toshiba said its goal was to win orders for at least 45 AP1000 nuclear reactors overseas by 2030.1 But Toshiba subsidiary Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March 2017 ‒ nearly bankrupting its parent company in the process ‒ and was later sold to Canadian investment company Brookfield Business Partners for about US$4.6 billion (considerably less than US$5.4 billion Toshiba paid for Westinghouse in 2006).3 Toshiba has exited the reactor construction business.

Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman wrote in May 2018: "The biggest black eye that Japan has gotten in recent years isn't from cleanup troubles at Fukushima, but from the multi-billion dollar cost overruns at the V C Summer site [in South Carolina] where Toshiba's Westinghouse ran the project into the ground with self-inflicted management failures."4

It seems very likely that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' (MHI) plan to take a lead role in the building of four reactors at Sinop in Turkey will be formally abandoned in the near future.5 In 2018, MHI told the Turkish government that the cost of the project would total around ¥5 trillion (US$45.6 billion), more than double the original estimate of about ¥2.1 trillion (US$19.2 billion).6 "We cannot accept this" cost increase, a Turkish government official reportedly told MHI representatives.7 Itochu Trading House, a Japanese company, exited the Sinop project consortium in 2018 due to the escalating costs and unrealistic timeframe.4,9

A dozen Japanese companies were involved in the JINED consortium that hoped to build reactors in Vietnam. Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry was to provide significant financing and insurance, but Vietnam cancelled its nuclear power plans in 2016.10 Reuters reported following the cancellation: "Though it has sought contracts for years, Japan has never led a nuclear project to completion overseas and Abe has lent his office's prestige to attempts to win contracts ... The dented ambitions for exports come at a time when Japan is struggling to restart dozens of reactors shut down in the wake of Fukushima."11

Japan has concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement with India, but it's doubtful that it will lead to any work for Japanese companies. Tom Corben noted in The Diplomat in December 2017 that Japan's willingness to supply India's nuclear power program is problematic: "Meanwhile, as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the ambiguous nature of assurances from the Indian government that Japanese technology will not be used to produce nuclear weapons is worrying, as is the lack of legal definition around the circumstances in which Japan may justifiably abandon the deal."12

In October 2018, Toshiba and IHI decided to dissolve a joint venture formed in 2011 to manufacture and supply nuclear plant equipment.8 IHI will keep its nuclear business alive but is shifting energy operations towards renewables as well as hydrogen and other non-fossil-fuel options.13

Toshiba has exited the reactor construction business (but continues to work on maintaining, repairing and decommissioning existing plants), sold Westinghouse, and exited the joint venture with IHI. Other Japanese utilities are also shifting from reactor construction to decommissioning. TEPCO, Chubu Electric Power, Hitachi and Toshiba are negotiating a partnership in areas including reactor decommissioning and maintenance.8

Government support for nuclear exports

A December 2018 editorial in The Mainichi questioned the Japanese government's continuing promotion of nuclear exports:14

"Projects to export nuclear power plants, a pillar of the "growth strategy" promoted by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, appear to be crumbling.

"Factors behind the failures include ballooning construction costs due to strengthened safety standards after the triple core meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011, and growing anti-nuclear sentiments around the world.

"Nothing else can be said but that the export projects have effectively failed. The prime minister's office and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry must bear the responsibility of continuing to promote these exports despite a massive change in the attitude toward nuclear power plants. …

"In 2012, a national referendum in Lithuania voted down a project to build a Hitachi nuclear power plant, and then in 2016, Vietnam scrubbed a similar construction plan. The same year, Japan signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with India, eyeing exports of nuclear power plants despite concerns about the proliferation of nuclear materials to the nuclear weapon state outside of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Still, the export plan has yet to materialize. It is clear that the export of nuclear power plants has been backed into a corner for quite some time already. …

"Continuing to focus on nuclear power export, however, will lead Japan nowhere. The government should take another look at global trends, and review the basis of its nuclear power policy to rid Japan of nuclear power as soon as possible."

Loss of skills

Japan's nuclear export ambitions are crumbling and there is little chance of new reactors being built in Japan. Thus Japan is fast losing the capacity to build reactors at home or abroad. The Nikkei Asian Review reported in December 2018:8

"The biggest challenge for Japanese manufacturers losing nuclear orders will be retaining and passing on skills. Around 3,000 people were engaged in nuclear-power-related work in 2016, down sharply from the 2010 peak of 13,700, while the number of technical workers in the field has tumbled 40%, according to the Japan Electrical Manufacturers' Association. This has raised concerns about whether the industry will have enough engineers to handle decommissioning work, demand for which is set to rise as power companies scrap old reactors. 'In the U.S., technical know-how at Westinghouse Electric and General Electric sharply declined during a long stretch of time without new nuclear construction,' said an executive at a heavy industry group, adding that the same loss of skills 'is sure to happen in Japan.'"

The Japanese nuclear export industry did have one small win in 2018: Idaho National Laboratory subcontracted GE Hitachi to work with Bechtel to advance design and cost estimates for an experimental fast neutron reactor based on GE Hitachi's PRISM technology. The US Department of Energy plans to decide in 2020 whether or not to proceed with the project. If built, the reactor will be operated as a national test facility ‒ a source of fast neutrons to help researchers develop fuels and materials for fast reactors.15 Dr Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists questioned the wisdom of the project, noting that compared to conventional light-water reactors, fast reactors are less safe, more expensive, and more difficult to operate and repair.16

That one, small win does nothing to change what Tadashi Narabayashi, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, recently described as a "critical situation" for Japan's nuclear power industry.17 "Japan would lose its own atomic power industry, and would have to import Chinese-made nuclear plants 20 years from now," he said.


1. Eric Johnston, 15 Feb 2017, 'Toshiba's woes weigh heavily on government's ambition to sell Japan's nuclear technology',

2. Nuclear Monitor #869, 28 Nov 2018, 'Toshiba gives up on Moorside nuclear power project in the UK',

3. World Nuclear Association,

4. Dan Yurman, 7 May 2018, 'Japan's Plans for Nuclear Exports Hit Speed Bumps',

5. Nikkei Asian Review, 4 Dec 2018, 'Japan to scrap Turkey nuclear project',

6. Mainichi Japan, 4 Jan 2019, 'Japanese gov't plan to export nuclear power technology floundering',

8. Masamichi Hoshi, Kenji Asada and Takashi Tsuji, 5 Dec 2018, 'Japan Risks Losing Nuclear Prowess With Turkey Project Abort',

9. Nuke Info Tokyo No. 184, May/June 2018, 'Itochu Withdraws from Turkish NPP Project',

10. World Nuclear Association, 'Nuclear Power in Vietnam'.

11. Aaron Sheldrick and Ho Binh Minh, 18 Nov 2016, 'Japan's nuclear export ambitions hit wall as Vietnam set to rip up reactor order',

12. Tom Corben, 22 Dec 2017, 'Japan's Nuclear Exports: Risky Business',

13. Kenji Asada and Yukinori Hanada, 19 Oct 2018, 'Toshiba and IHI drop nuclear venture in shift to renewable energy',

14. The Mainichi, 25 Dec 2018, 'Editorial: Japan must ditch nuclear plant exports for global trends in renewable energy',

15. World Nuclear Association, 15 November 2018, 'PRISM selected for US test reactor programme',

16. Ed Lyman, 15 Feb 2018, 'The "Versatile Fast Neutron Source": A Misguided Nuclear Reactor Project',

17. Mainichi Japan, 4 Jan 2019, 'Japanese gov't plan to export nuclear power technology floundering',