Japan to give nuclear power another chance
By Justin McCurry, CS Monitor, July 10, 2013
Tokyo—Japan appears poised to give nuclear power another chance, just over two years after the reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant forced it to rethink its enthusiasm for atomic energy.
The earthquake and tsunami that triggered the triple meltdown on March 11, 2011, rocked Japan’s confidence in the safety of its nuclear facilities, forcing it to abandon plans to raise its dependence on nuclear from about a third of its total energy needs to more than 50 percent by 2030.
Now, all but two of the country’s 50 working reactors stand idle; none will be able to resume operations unless they meet strict safety standards introduced this week by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, a new industry watchdog formed to help win over a deeply skeptical public.
The shift toward a bigger role for nuclear in Japan’s energy mix began this week when four operators applied to restart 10 reactors at five plants. If the reactors meet the new standards—safety reviews are expected to take at least six months—the first could go back online within a year.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority was launched last year to replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission, whose collusive ties to the industry were partly blamed for causing the March 2011 disaster. The authority’s chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, said the new regulations “have come close to reaching international standards, having lagged behind before.”
"We have put a lot of consideration into countermeasures against externally caused accidents, presupposing the harsh natural environment in Japan," he said at a recent briefing. "That means our regulations are among the most stringent standards globally."
Pressure for a return to a limited form of nuclear power production is strongest among Japan’s nine nuclear power plant operators, which suffered record losses last year amid soaring fuel costs.
But Paul J. Scalise, a research fellow at the University of Tokyo and an expert on energy markets, says that given the practical and financial hurdles to filling the huge energy gap left by nuclear with more oil and gas imports or renewables, Japan has little choice other than to consider reactor restarts.
"[The restarts] are a financial and economic necessity," he says. "The utilities are bleeding money, and fast."
Mr. Scalise notes that fuel costs for Japan’s utilities rose 36 percent last year. At the end of fiscal year 2012, four of Japan’s nine nuclear power operators posted their largest losses ever.
"Clearly, that’s unsustainable in the short-term, let alone in the long-term," he says. "Bankruptcy will become a reality, so it’s clear that something needs to be done."
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has made no secret of his support for nuclear restarts, but insists that the days of collusion between pro-nuclear politicians and the industry, and of leaving safety precautions solely in the hands of operators, are over.
The new regulations require plants for the first time to fit reactors with special filters to minimize radiation leaks during Fukushima-type accidents, take measures to prevent terrorist attacks, and ensure that staff can oversee an effective post-disaster response even if the plant itself is inaccessible.
In light of the Fukushima accident, coastal plants must have higher protective seawalls to protect plants against tsunami, along with sturdier structures that are better able to withstand powerful earthquakes.