January 27, 2023

Japan adopts a plan to maximize nuclear power, in a major shift

Japan adopted a plan on Thursday to extend the life of nuclear reactors, replace old reactors and even build new ones, a major shift in a country hit by the Fukushima disaster that was planning to phase out atomic power.

In the face of global fuel shortages and rising prices, pressures to reduce carbon emissionsJapan’s leaders began turning back toward nuclear power, but the announcement was their clearest commitment yet after remaining silent on sensitive topics such as the possibility of building new reactors.

Under the new policy, Japan will maximize the use of existing reactors by restarting as many of them as possible and extend the operational life of old reactors beyond 60 years. The government has also pledged to develop the next generation of reactors.

In 2011, a strong earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused multiple collapses at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. – Disaster ignited anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan and at one point led the government to promise an energy phase-out by 2030. But since then, the government has recommitted to technology, including setting a target for nuclear power to replace 20-22% of the energy mix in country by the end of the decade.

However, restart approvals for idle nuclear reactors have come slowly since the Fukushima disaster, leading to stricter safety standards. Utility companies have applied to restart 27 reactors in the past decade. 17 of them passed safety checks and only 10 have resumed work.

According to the paper outlining the new policy, nuclear energy plays an “important role as a primary carbon-neutral energy source in achieving supply stability and carbon neutrality” and pledged to “continue to use nuclear energy in the future.” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he intends to persuade the cabinet to approve the policy and submit the necessary bills to parliament.

As part of the new policy, the Ministry of Economy and Industry has set out a plan to allow 10-year extensions for reactors after 30 years of operation while also allowing utilities to subtract uninterrupted periods in calculating the operating life of reactors.

The plan was approved on Wednesday by Japan’s nuclear regulator. New safety inspection rules still need to be made into law and approved by parliament.

New safety rules that require operating permits every decade after 30 years would be safer than the current one-time 20-year extension option for 40-year-old reactors, Regulatory Authority Commissioner Shinichi Yamanaka told a news conference. But experts doubt this.

Under the new policy, utility operators can continue to use old equipment instead of investing in new technology or renewable energy sources, said Takeo Kikawa, an economics professor at Japan International University and an energy expert.

“Naturally, we should aim for newer technology and use it safely. Therefore, extending the life of the reactors is an undesirable move,” Kikawa recently said on a talk show.

Most of Japan’s nuclear reactors are more than 30 years old. Four reactors that have been in operation for more than 40 years have received permission to operate, and one is currently online.

Under the new policy, Japan will also push for the development and construction of “next generation innovation reactors” to replace about 20 reactors now slated for decommissioning.

Kenichi Oshima, a professor of environmental economics and energy policy at Ryokoku University, said that some of what the government calls “innovative” reactors are not very different from current technology and that the prospects for nuclear fusion and other next-generation reactors are highly uncertain and unachievable. anytime soon.

Thursday’s adoption of the new policy comes less than four months after Kishida launched a “GX (Green Transition) Implementation Council” of experts and foreign ministers to “consider all options” to compile a new policy that addresses global fuel shortages amid Russia’s war on Ukraine and seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Nuclear power accounts for less than 7% of Japan’s energy supply, and meeting the government’s goal of raising that share to 20-22% by 2030 would require about 27 reactors, from the current 10 – a target some say is unattainable. The new policy also does not help address impending supply shortages because reactors cannot be restarted fast enough.

While public opinion about nuclear power has cooled since Fukushima, opponents still argue that atomic power is not flexible and not even cheaper than renewables when considering the final waste management and necessary safety measures — and that it can cause incalculable damage in an accident. .

Ruiko Muto, a survivor of the Fukushima disaster, called the new policy “extremely disappointing”. She added: “The Fukushima disaster is not over yet and it seems that the government has already forgotten what happened.”

The regulator came under fire on Wednesday after a civic group revealed that few of its experts had discussed details with Ministry of Industry officials before the regulator was formally asked to consider changing the base of aging reactors, despite its mandated independence.

Prime Minister Kishida also said Thursday that the government will do more to find candidate sites for a final repository of high-level nuclear waste that Japan does not yet possess. Initial studies began in two small towns in Hokkaido, to the anger of some residents.