IKATA, EHIME PREF. – On the far western edge of Shikoku, Ehime’s Sada Misaki Peninsula juts out into the Seto Inland Sea. It’s a long sliver of land home to several species of hawk and several varieties of the prefecture’s famous “mikan” oranges.
It’s also home to the Ikata nuclear plant, whose reactor 3 might be the first to be turned back on under new regulations that came into effect Monday. That’s a decision, local opponents say, that has more to do with municipal, and national, Liberal Democratic Party politics than with any need for the power the plant would provide.
“Much of the electricity Ikata generates can be sold to Kansai Electric Power Co., money that Shikoku Electric Power Co. needs. Unlike the Kansai region, large commercial enterprises in Shikoku often have their own generators and are, in fact, selling their excess power to Shikoku Electric,” said Junko Saima, an Ikata resident who has opposed the plant for decades.
Noboru Hiroo, a Shikoku Electric official, said the utility expects peak summertime electricity demand to reach 5.62 million kw. While most of the supply will come from fossil fuel plants, some will be bought from those generating their own electricity.
“We have contracts with eight companies and expect them to provide 140,000 kw,” he said.
As the July 21 Upper House election looms, utilities nationwide are rushing to apply for restarting their nuclear power stations, which have been shut down since the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdowns. With the ruling LDP expected to win big, at least a dozen reactors, including Ikata’s reactor 3, could be rebooted by next year if they clear the safety assessment by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.
Less than 2½ years since those tragic events, the heavily pro-nuclear LDP and its allies in the utilities, local governments and business community are striking back, as concerns about electricity shortages and rising electric bills clash with safety fears.
Of the 10 major political parties, only the LDP rejects the idea of eliminating atomic energy entirely. Its platform calls for gaining the trust of local residents to reactivate reactors.
“We will not restart reactors that do not meet NRA standards. At the same time, we have a responsibility to provide safe electricity,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters at the Japan National Press Club earlier this month.
New Komeito, the LDP’s ruling bloc junior partner, is campaigning on a goal to make Japan nuclear-power-free “as soon as possible.” Despite strong support from pro-nuclear utility worker unions, the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force and the ruling party when the Fukushima meltdowns occurred, says it wants all atomic plants offline by the 2030s.
Among other opposition groups, Your Party promises to have no nuclear power plants operating by the end of the 2020s, while Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) promises to phase out all nuclear energy by the 2030s. The Japanese Communist Party has pledged to keep idle all reactors shut down at present. Only two reactors are currently operational nationwide, at Kepco’s Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture.
While the restart of reactor 3 at the three-reactor Ikata plant is making local headlines, bread-and-butter issues like economic revitalization, employment and care for children and the elderly are just, if not more, prominent.
In Ehime, LDP Upper House candidate Takumi Ihara, who in media polls is leading the race, makes no mention on his website of restarting the Ikata reactor. While JCP hopeful Masakatsu Ueki calls for decommissioning the plant, Your Party candidate Kayoko Fujioka says little about it, choosing instead to emphasize child care issues.
For the town of Ikata and Shikoku Electric, the restart of reactor 3 is of paramount importance. The town of over 10,000 inhabitants relies on both nuclear power-related subsidies, including government and private subsidies, while local service industries count on plant-related business, especially during inspection periods, to keep them going.
But the idling of the Ikata plant has also finally given local politicians a chance to speak about a nuclear-free future.
“I feel strongly the need to revise our economic revitalization policy, which relies on the presence of nuclear power,” Ikata Mayor Kazuhiko Yamashita said in mid-June, although he added he was not seeking a permanent shutdown of the Ikata plant.
For Shikoku Electric, keeping the facility offline has forced the utility to import more fuel for its thermal plants, prompting it to hike electricity rates.
“With the reactors at Ikata shut down, there’s no change in the tough situation we face with regard to electricity supply,” Shikoku Electric President Akira Chiba said at a shareholders’ meeting in June.
The House of Councilors election is about short-term politics, and whether Japan’s remaining reactors will be fired up within months or years. But regardless of the result, politicians of all stripes will be forced to tackle fundamental long-term problems regarding atomic energy, especially what to do with aging reactors and the shortage of storage space for spent nuclear fuel.
Of the nation’s 50 commercial reactors, three are more than 40 years old. By 2020, another 11 will have hit the 40-year limit, including all of those operated by Kansai Electric, while reactors 5 and 6 at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s wrecked Fukushima No. 1 plant are unlikely to be restarted due to political opposition.
Reactors are supposed to be decommissioned after 40 years of service, and utilities can apply to extend their operations for up to two decades. But while not legally obliged to do so, the units are unlikely to continue operating beyond 40 years without local consent.
Towns and villages hosting atomic plants are sure to raise safety concerns. This means the central government and the utilities will likely find themselves bargaining with local officials over how much taxpayer money and private donations should be pumped in initially to secure local permission to keep the nuclear plants online.
That’s just the first problem.
Assuming reactors are restarted and run at pre-3/11 levels, media reports estimate that 33 of the 50 reactors will see their on-site spent-fuel pools max out their capacity within six years. They include all seven Tepco reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture and some of Kepco’s Takahama and Oi reactors in Fukui. The pools of another 14 reactors would likely be filled to the brim within a dozen years.
Only three reactors, including Ikata’s unit 3, have enough space left to continue storing spent fuel after 12 years.
About 14,200 tons of spent nuclear fuel was sitting in pools next to Japan’s reactors as of September 2011 — around 70 percent of the total capacity.
The government says the three options for dealing with this stockpile, and future spent fuel, are to ship it to Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, for reprocessing, build medium-term storage facilities or send it overseas for direct reprocessing.
The problem with Rokkasho is that its planned reprocessing facility is decades behind schedule and will not open anytime soon. Rokkasho’s storage pools for spent fuel sent by utilities around the nation over the years are about 98 percent full.
The problem with new medium-term storage facilities is that, despite central government and utility cash incentives, few local governments have expressed any interest in building such facilities in their backyard. Even if a few were approved somewhere soon, they aren’t likely to be built before spent-fuel pools at some reactors are full.
That leaves overseas reprocessing, an effort that, critics say, hides the true cost of nuclear power and creates a host of international safety and proliferation concerns.
Although restarting the plants, and the future of atomic power, is an important campaign issue, the headline-grabbing antinuclear protests seen a year ago were absent as the campaign kicked off.
A recent rally in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, for Greens Japan candidate Uiko Hasegawa drew only a couple dozen people. Conceding the level of public demonstrations has faded since last July, Hasegawa nevertheless said events since the March 11, 2011, disasters have created a new reality.
“Think about the situation before then, when Japanese society almost considered you a criminal if you opposed nuclear power. Today, everybody is talking about whether it’s necessary. There’s a much better awareness of the problems,” she said.
In Ikata, meanwhile, Saimu, whose husband led lawsuits nearly four decades ago to stop the plant from being built, continues to oppose the restart of Ikata’s reactor 3. But she admits it’s a tough job.
“It takes pretty much all of our effort just to oppose the Ikata plant. The Fukushima meltdowns shattered the nuclear power safety myth. But now we have to translate that into political action, and that can be quite hard,” she said.