Earlier this month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced the results of a review of energy production costs, which concluded that nuclear will remain the cheapest alternative for Japan over the next 15 years while pointing out that the calculations took into consideration the government’s new safety measures. By 2030, the cost of producing a kilowatt hour of electricity in a nuclear plant is expected to increase from ¥8.9 to ¥10.1. This estimate also incorporates the presumed savings resulting from those new safety measures, which, METI assumes, will reduce the “frequency” of reactor accidents.
In comparison, energy derived from coal will cost ¥12.9 per kilowatt hour and from LNG ¥13.4, though these figures are based on price increases predicted in 2011. More significantly, the cost of solar will rise from ¥12.4 to ¥16, and wind from ¥13.9 to ¥33.1. Geothermal comes in at ¥19.2. METI said these high costs will “affect development” of renewables, implying that there isn’t much of a future for them.
A few days later, Shukan Asahi ran an article assessing these calculations, pointing out that the figure of ¥10.1 per kW/hour for nuclear is, in the ministry’s statement, followed by the word ijō, meaning “at least,” while figures for other energy sources are not. The Asahi suggests that METI is trying to assure deniability because it’s almost certain that nuclear-related costs will increase in the future. According to Kenichi Oshima, professor of environmental economics at Ritsumeikan University, the ¥9.1 trillion needed to clean up the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and pay compensation to locals affected by the accident was not factored into the estimate; nor was the cost of decommissioning not only Fukushima No. 1 but other reactors scheduled to go out of service in the next 15 years, and Tokyo Electric Power Co. hasn’t even set a budget for decommissioning Fukushima, a separate procedure from the cleanup. To put matters into perspective, the estimated amount of radioactive material at Fukushima that needs to be processed is equivalent to the amount of radioactive material that would need to be processed from the normal decommissioning of 54 nuclear reactors.
Decommissioning involves removing the spent fuel from the reactor and then disassembling the containment vessel and tearing down the facility. Tepco maintains it has expertise in this area, based on its decommissioning of a test reactor in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The group that carried out that work says 99 percent of the radiation in the plant was in the fuel rods, so that was the only waste that required special handling.
But Japan still lacks facilities for storing high-level radioactive waste. At present, spent fuel rods are kept on-site at the nuclear plants from which they’re removed, whether these plants are in operation or not, and high-level waste stays radioactive for hundreds of years. Even low-level irradiated waste, such as the discarded containment vessel, has to be isolated for 30 to 50 years. Tokaimura’s decommissioning was supposed to be completed by 2017, but there is still no solution to the waste problem, so the timetable has been extended to 2025.
But this “easy” scenario for decommissioning doesn’t apply to Fukushima, because Tepco doesn’t know exactly how much high-level radioactive material has to be removed — or even where it is. NHK World elicited a frank evaluation of the situation from Naohiro Masuda, the man in charge of decommissioning Fukushima No. 1, on “Newsline,” its English-language news program. Masuda doesn’t believe decommissioning can start before 2020, and betrays doubt as to whether a proper cleanup of the plant “is even possible.”
The public broadcaster went further last week with a documentary in its series “Decommissioning Fukushima,” a process that, under the most favorable circumstances, won’t be completed until 2051.
There are few examples to follow for the people trying to clean up the crippled reactors. It took workers at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant three years to find the radioactive debris after the 1979 meltdown, and another 11 years to remove it, and that was only one reactor. Fukushima has three damaged reactors, within which the radiation is lethal, so Tepco and its affiliates designed a ¥1.5 billion robot to enter the reactor and look around. It got stuck mid-inspection.
NHK shows how Tepco has sought advice from experts in France and South Korea to facilitate the cleanup, and while these consultations yield useful ideas, as the program points out, all accidents are unique, which means cleaning up after them is invariably complicated.
Meanwhile, expenses are accumulating at a rate that makes them difficult to project, but according to a different Shukan Asahi article, Japan’s nuclear industry has set the cost of decommissioning at between ¥55 billion and ¥70 billion per reactor. Germany and the U.K., which have each decommissioned a number of reactors, spent the equivalent of between ¥250 billion and ¥300 billion.
The online magazine Business Journal recently explained the matter in bookkeeping terms. Kansai Electric and other power companies plan to decommission at least five superannuated reactors rather than apply for extensions because their respective output isn’t enough to pay for the government’s new safety measures, which cost about ¥10 billion per reactor. The problem is that once a reactor is shut down permanently, in addition to the cost of decommissioning, the company’s revenue for that plant drops to zero, thus hurting its bottom line even more and making it difficult to borrow money or issue bonds. Consequently, METI is thinking of changing the accounting system so that companies can spread this loss over 10 years, during which they can add a surcharge to every customer’s bill for decommissioning.
Obviously, when METI says nuclear is the cheapest form of energy, they’re not thinking about the user.