Only a third of nuclear reactors may be restarted

by Mari Saito, Aaron Sheldrick, and Kentaro Hamada

Reuters

Three years after the Fukushima disaster prompted the closure of all of Japan’s nuclear reactors, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to revive atomic power as a core part of the nation’s energy mix, but many of those idled reactors will never come back online.

Fewer than 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, a Reuters analysis shows..

Hokkaido Electric Power Co., facing a third year of financial losses, is seeking a capital infusion from a state-owned lender, which would make it the second utility after Tokyo Electric Power Co., whose Fukushima No. 1 plant suffered three core meltdowns, to get a government bailout since the March 2011 disaster started.

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 its electricity before the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake hit and tsunami knocked out the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Of the nation’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 analysis suggests. As a result, nuclear energy will eventually make up less than 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 plant 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’s impossible to say how many reactors will eventually pass safety inspections and win local approval to restart, but the 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.

A number at the low end of the Reuters calculations could make it impossible for Japan toreinstate 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 as soon as this week.

The public has turned against nuclear power after watching Tepco struggle to deal with the Fukushima disaster. Recent polls put opposition to reactor restarts at about 2-to-1 over support.

Abe’s government, which reversed the previous government’s goal to phase out nuclear power by 2030, has set no timetable for restarting nuclear plants, saying the process is in the hands of a tough, more independent safety regulator set up after Fukushima.

Some utilities have business plans that assume restarts by this summer, but that looks highly unrealistic as the Nuclear Regulation Agency says the utilities aren’t taking the process seriously enough.

Eight power firms 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 plant in Kagoshima Prefecture after Kyushu Electric Power Co. broke ranks with its peers and said it would provision for far greater seismic shocks to the plant.

Three 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 actively vetted by the NRA.

“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 centers of political activity,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. “Then you use that to create momentum for the agenda of restarting as many reactors as possible.”

Even after the NRA says a reactor is safe to restart, the 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 government subsidies.

Other communities may balk at disaster preparedness. A survey of 134 mayors of towns and villages near reactors by the Asahi newspaper found that 10 of the country’s 16 nuclear plants do not have evacuation plans to cover a full 30 km radius — the size of the Fukushima exclusion zone.

Some reactors can essentially be ruled out, like Tepco’s Fukushima No. 2 station, which is well within the No. 1 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 in Fukui Prefecture. It sits on an active fault, according to experts commissioned by the NRA.

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. These include reactor 1 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata power station.