Three years after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster prompted the closure of all Japan’s nuclear reactors, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to revive nuclear power as a core part of the energy mix, but many of those idled reactors will never come back online.
As few as one-third — and at most about two-thirds — of the reactors will pass today’s more stringent safety checks and clear the other seismological, economic, logistical and political hurdles needed to restart, analysis shows.
This means that Japan is likely to remain heavily reliant on imported fuel to power the world’s third-largest economy, straining a trade balance that has been in the red for nearly two years, while electric utilities face huge liabilities to decommission reactors and pay for fossil fuels.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co and Kyushu Electric Power Co — both facing a third year of financial losses — are seeking capital infusions totaling nearly US$1.5 billion from a state-owned lender. Kyushu Electric shares dropped as much as 7 percent on Wednesday to an eight-week low. Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) was bailed out by the government after the March 2011 disaster.
Continuing indefinitely to burn more coal and gas also means Tokyo will find it much harder to meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Japan had 54 nuclear reactors supplying about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity before an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima station in 2011, leaving the six reactors at the plant shut forever and slated for a decades-long decommissioning process.
Of Japan’s remaining four dozen reactors, 14 will probably be restarted at some point, a further 17 are uncertain and 17 will probably never be switched back on, the Reuters analysis suggests. As a result, nuclear energy could remain below 10 percent of Japan’s power supply.
The analysis is based on questionnaires and interviews with more than a dozen experts and input from the 10 nuclear operators. It takes into account such factors as the age of the plants, nearby seismic faults, additional work needed to address safety concerns, evacuation plans and local political opposition.
It is impossible to say how many reactors will eventually pass safety inspections and win local approval to restart, but the Reuters analysis constitutes “a very good guess,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, who stepped down this week as vice chairman of the government’s Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
Japan previously had the third-highest number of nuclear reactors, behind France and the US. In Asia, China currently has 21 reactors and South Korea 23.
A number at the low end of the analysis’ calculations could make it impossible for Japan to reinstate nuclear as a “base-load” power source — enough to feed a constant minimum supply to the grid — as specified in a draft national energy plan that the government may adopt soon.
In a measure of the keen interest in and lack of hard information about Japan’s nuclear restarts, shares of uranium producers such as Canada’s Cameco Corp and Australia’s Paladin Energy Ltd jumped as much as 15 percent last month due to the news that Tokyo had compiled a final draft of the energy plan.
The Japanese public have turned against nuclear power after watching TEPCO struggle to deal with the Fukushima disaster and recent polls put opposition to nuclear restarts at about two-to-one over support.
Abe’s government, which reversed the previous government’s policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2030, has set no timetable for restarting nuclear plants, saying that the process is in the hands of a tough, more independent safety regulator set up after Fukushima.
Some power companies have business plans that assume restarts by this summer, but — with the possible exception of two reactors in southern Japan — that looks highly unrealistic, as the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) says the utilities are not taking the process seriously enough.
Eight power companies have requested safety inspections to allow the restart of 17 reactors at 10 power stations. The NRA has fast-tracked two reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, after operator Kyushu Electric broke ranks with its peers and said it would provision for far greater seismic shocks to the plant.
Three other reactors in southern Japan are considered next in line, among 11 pressurized-water reactors at five plants run by Shikoku Electric, Kansai Electric and Hokkaido Electric being vetted by the regulator.
“I think the government is incredibly clever by doing the restarts in the most modern, advanced places that have the most local support and are yet far from centres of political activity... Then you use that to create momentum for the agenda of restarting as many reactors as possible,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.
Even after the NRA says a reactor is safe to restart, the central government will defer to local areas for the final decision. Some of the front-runners have local governments strongly behind nuclear power and the wealth it brings to communities through jobs and state subsidies.
Other communities may balk at disaster preparedness. A survey of 134 mayors of towns and villages near reactors by the Asahi Shimbun found that 10 of the country’s 16 nuclear plants do not have evacuation plans covering a 30km radius — the size of the Fukushima exclusion zone.
Some reactors can essentially be ruled out, like TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ni nuclear power plant, which is well within the Dai-ichi plant evacuation zone and faces near-universal opposition from a traumatized local population. Also highly unlikely to switch back on is Japan Atomic Power Co’s Tsuruga plant west of Tokyo, which experts commissioned by the NRA say sits on an active fault.
Twelve reactors will reach or exceed the standard life expectancy of 40 years within the next five years, probably sealing their fate in the new, harsher regulatory climate, including Reactor No. 1 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata power station — the outlook is less clear for about one-third of the other 48 reactors.
TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant on the coast north of Tokyo — the world’s biggest nuclear station by output capacity — faces a politically fraught process. Although two of its seven reactors look likely to be allowed to restart on technical grounds, the head of Niigata Prefecture where the plant is located has accused the operator of “institutionalised lying” and says TEPCO cannot be trusted to operate another facility.
Chubu Electric Power Co’s Hamaoka nuclear power plant 190km southwest of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture has been branded by one Japanese seismologist as the country’s most dangerous nuclear facility as it is in an area where four major tectonic plates meet. Any restart would face significant opposition from local legislators even in Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party and the Shizuoka prefectural governor supports a referendum on the issue.
The government will probably revise Japan’s energy framework in the next three years and if Abe’s party is still in power, it may push to build new reactors to replace aging units, Suzuki said.
“They may say it’s better to replace older reactors with safer new reactors, and the public may accept it,” Suzuki added.
Additional reporting by Taiga Uranaka and James Topham