Questions remain over future plan for Japan’s aging nuclear plants


Staff Writer

As the debate about what to do with Japan’s aging nuclear reactors intensifies, questions remain about the ramifications of decommissioning plants, and how to tear down the facilities in a way that’s efficient, affordable, safe, and that has the support of the local community.

In the United Kingdom, these concerns formed the basis of a policy that has led to the decommission of numerous power stations, two of which began operating in the 1950s.

“There is no set of rules for decommissioning. This is because when you’re operating a nuclear power station, you want every day to be the same,” said Keith Franklin, of the U.K. National Nuclear Laboratory, and First Secretary (Nuclear) at the British embassy in Tokyo.

“But when you’re decommissioning, you want each day to be different than the day before in terms of progress on cleaning things up,” he told a news conference in Osaka on Tuesday.

Seven of Japan’s 48 commercial reactors are at least 40 years old — in principle their maximum operating life. Another five are at least 35 years old and their fate will have to be decided within the next few years.

Kyushu Electric plans to decommission the 40-year-old Genkai No. 1 plant, while Kepco is expected to shut down the Mihama No. 1 and 2 reactors, both of which are over 40 years old. Chugoku Electric plans to decommission the 41-year-old Shimane No. 1 reactor, while the Tsuruga No. 1 reactor, which is 45 years old and run by Japan Atomic Power, will be closed.

Decommissioning a plant is a decades-long process that does not necessarily immediately involve the most crucial step of tearing down the reactors and hauling away radioactive material.

“During the decommissioning of the Berkeley power station in southwest England, we’ve left the reactor building standing because it’s safer to remove the nuclear material in another 60 years,” Franklin said. “We’ve closed the doors on the reactor building until 2074.”

However, he acknowledged publicly visible gestures were important because they could help reassure local communities that the plant was actually being dismantled.

“A skyline change helps garner support for the decommissioning process and for difficult decisions, such as not tearing down and hauling away nuclear materials in reactor buildings,” he said.

“In one case, we destroyed the plant’s cooling towers, which were not actually a major hazard but could be seen for miles. If you live nearby and you see them come down, you feel progress is being made, and that’s more effective than simply telling people about the progress.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson the U.K. learned was that effective decommissioning starts with addressing the corporate and bureaucratic culture at a nuclear plant.

“Changing your culture from making something — electricity — to actually taking power stations down requires a huge cultural change on a nuclear site. That’s something we’re really working on sharing with Japanese nuclear operators,” Franklin said.

  • Richard Solomon

    In the case of Japan, the cultural changes needed in the bureaucracy start at the top. PM Abe is clearly a captive of the perspective/biases of the nuclear power industry. Ie, he’s never met a nuclear power plant he didn’t like. Unless/until his strongly pro-nuclear power perspective changes there will be no chance that Japan will decommission a significant number of these plants. He will hedge, stall, and do whatever else he can to keep the permanent closure of the majority of the 48 plants from happening.