In an apparent change of attitude, the new coalition Japanese government has expressed that it may be open to reviving nuclear power.
Toshimitsu Motegi, the minister for economy, trade and industry told reporters in a group interview that the previous administration’s policy of shutting down reactors that are more than 40 years would be reviewed.
Although the more surprising was that Motegi envisions that nuclear power could grow in capacity again, with more plants being built as long as they meet the safety requirements of the recently formed recently formed Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).
It remains to be seen if this will result in more than just two of the country’s 50 nuclear plants being returned online, but the message is a clear move away from the pledge from the former centre-left government to ease out nuclear reactors altogether by 2040.
One of the major reasons for the change in attitude is that it is felt by major figures in the government that any bid to regain economic prowess means using nuclear power again to meet those demands.
‘Safety standards are independent from political opinion’
Tomoko Murakami, of the Nuclear Research Division at the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan, the biggest energy think tank in the country, says: “Safety as a top priority and always has been in the long history of using nuclear power since the sixties. The stance towards the safety of nuclear power has not changed for these 50 years and should never be. Political opinions, whether nuclear should be used or not be used might be different party by party, but the safety standard is completely independent from political opinions.”
The new Nuclear Safety Authority of Japan (NRA) is sure to play a considerable role in the future of nuclear power in Japan, on the 21 January a draft document on a fresh set of safety standards was released. In the document the NRA made a series of recommendations including a plethora of additional methods, with equipment being fortified based on the painful lessons learned from the Daiichi plant two years ago.
In detail, the NRA puts forward diversified power sources, ultimate heat exchangers, and coolant injection systems, although these methods have previously been discussed and installed in many units already.
The schedule for a new set of safety standards has been penciled in for July, where again the NRA will lay out their final plans to ensure that nuclear is a safe way to produce the energy needed for the third biggest economy on the planet.
How much influence the regulatory body will have is still unclear, political discussions may surround this issue in the future, especially as there has been recent controversy over the Tsuruga Unit 2 on the south east coast, where the NRA has concluded there is a possibly an active fault at the plant, something strongly rejected by the Japan Atomic Power Company.
What is currently happening in decommissioning is a pointer to just how progressive the Japanese nuclear industry is, and what the future hold for the industry.
“If you mention the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1-4, the procedure is a long process," says Murakami.
“Six months after the accident the Tokyo Electric Power Company released a long term plan of the decommissioning of the four reactors. There are some technical “hold points”, which mean that some engineering discussions and judgment would be required, and now, a few more years should be necessary to reach to the first hold point. Decommissioning would take some 40 years or more and now only nearly two years has passed.”
If the incumbent government is going to succeed in turning to nuclear once more, then surely they will have to win over public opinion and the skepticism of nuclear power that found a stronger voice after Fukushima.
Wavering public opinion
The evidence from recent polls suggest that attitudes to nuclear energy can waver, in March last year the Japan Association for Public Opinion Research published a survey which 79.6% said they favoured the phasing out of nuclear power altogether, but in contrast 69% said they thought that some reactors being put back into action was correct, in ensuring enough power being produced.
Tomoko Murakami says opinions vary widely: “The opinion of residents in the local communities and that of metropolitans, central government staff and politicians are naturally different. Local communities, such as Tsuruga, Mihama, Onagawa, and Ohi have been heavily dependent on the nuclear facilities both in their work lives and private lives. It would be unrealistic for the local communities to live without nuclear while Tokyo Metropolitans can live without nuclear. The gap is eternal.”
The new Liberal Democratic government is not thought to have any visceral desire to revitalize nuclear energy in the country, with so many problems, such as the economy to focus on.
Keeping independent of plant operators
At the time of writing the story it was reported that the Japanese nuclear regulatory body had a set back with one of its employees, which could undermine public confidence in the regulator.
According to Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority spokesman Hideka Morimoto: "On January 22nd senior NRA official, Tetsuo Nayuki, met with three officials of the Japan Atomic Power Company. It was found that at that meeting Mr Nayuki handed over a draft agency report about a site survey of the company's Tsuruga nuclear plant before it was publicly released."
“The Japan Atomic Power Company could have its very existence riding on this report because if as expected, the Nuclear Regulation Authority rules that there's an active fault under the company's Tsurugu plant, then the reactors will have to be decommissioned,” said a report from Australian radio show ABC AM.
The draft document that Tetsuo Nayuki leaked was a summary of discussions that had been open to the public, however, his superiors felt that his actions undermined public confidence in the new nuclear watchdog, and showed that in some cases, the cosy relationship between the regulator and those it's supposed to regulate still exists. Nayuki has been transferred out of the agency, according to news reports.
Although this government has changed its tone towards nuclear power with an increased sign of flexibility, the current situation is a true juggling act. On one side you have the manufacturing and service companies heavily dependent on affordable energy, such as nuclear energy, and on the other you have a nuclear regulator that has to work in both the interests of the nuclear power utilities it represents while also catering to the concerns of citizens and their fluctuating opinions over turning back on the country’s nuclear fleet.
One thing that is certain is that the challenges will require forthright attention to citizen safety while also meeting the economic needs of the country. That is one challenge that no country will envy, but a challenge that will be watched the world.
As civil nuclear decommissioning facilities and contractors grow in experience and countries such as the US and UK look to decommission military nuclear waste as soon as possible there is a business opportunity for those that meet the requirements.
The latest United States budget has earmarked $907.6m for nuclear energy research and development in advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies as well as small modular reactor licensing technical support. But is it enough to attract private sector investment?
An alliance with Bechtel for US decommissioning is something of a return of nuclear power prowess for Westinghouse. But it is also likely a sign of things to come for the industry.