Restarting reactors key topic in new energy policy debate



Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began a year ago, Japan’s energy supply mix has undergone a shakeup, with only two out of the nation’s 54 commercial nuclear reactors currently online and thermal power filling the gap.

The government is reviewing its overall energy policy, but a panel of experts given the task of drawing up options by this spring is deeply divided over the role nuclear power should play.

While the issue of what energy policy the country should pursue in the long term is still under discussion, Japan is guardedly moving toward the restart of idled reactors.

Last month, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency OK’d the results of stress tests on the first two of dozens of idled reactors to check their ability to withstand disasters.

Kansai Electric Power Co. submitted the stress tests results on reactors 3 and 4 at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture, and got a tentative NISA nod.

The two-phase stress tests were mandated by the government after Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant suffered three reactor core meltdowns triggered by the plant’s loss of power due to the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and crippling damage from monster tsunami.

Industry minister Yukio Edano, who is one of four ministers in charge of the decision on whether to authorize the restart of idled reactors, said: “The basic policy is to reduce Japan’s dependency on nuclear power over the medium to long term. This means that, for the near term, we would use (reactors) once their safety and security are assured.”

But some voice doubts over whether the stress tests introduced amid the Fukushima crisis are adequate to resume reactor operations and whether it is truly possible to confirm the safety of nuclear plants.

While the government says the initial test will be used to decide whether to restart reactors idled for routine inspections and maintenance, Hiromitsu Ino, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said the safety assessment on the two Oi reactors should be based on the results of both the first and second round of stress tests.

Utilities were supposed to submit to a second round of more comprehensive reactor stress tests by the end of last year, but so far none has done so.

“How can the agency say that the reactors can withstand the same sort of quake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima No. 1 plant when the examination of that accident is still incomplete and the cause remains unclear,” Ino said.

NISA validated the assessment that the two reactors at the Oi plant are capable of withstanding an earthquake 1.8 times stronger than the most powerful quake required to take into account when designing nuclear plants, and tsunami up to 11.4 meters high, four times higher than the maximum level presumed. The Fukushima plant was wrecked by 15-meter-high tsunami. Its sea wall was only a third of that height.

The agency’s judgment on the stress tests is now being checked by the Nuclear Safety Commission. Edano, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and two other ministers are then to decide whether to authorize the restart of the reactors.

Although winning approval from host communities is not a legal requirement, Noda has made it clear the government will make its decision in light of local opinion.

Given the Fukushima crisis, the government has also been working to draw up a new energy policy, terminating its earlier plan to boost reliance on nuclear energy to 53 percent of total power supply by 2030 from around 30 percent in 2009.

During meetings of the panel, whose members include professors, business officials and environmentalists, those against nuclear power raise concerns about safety, the costs incurred when an accident occurs, and the unsolved issue of what to do with nuclear waste.

Proponents of nuclear power cite concerns over the availability of sufficient quantities of renewable energy as well as the adverse effects on the environment and the nation’s energy security if fossil fuels are sought as alternatives.

Noting that Japan relies on the Middle East for more than 80 percent of its oil imports and 20 percent of its liquefied natural gas imports, Sadayuki Sakakibara, chairman of Toray Industries Inc. and a member of the panel, is worried about recent tensions in the volatile region.

“If the Strait of Hormuz is closed, it could have a very serious effect on (Japan’s) energy supply,” he told a panel meeting.

Japan’s energy self-sufficiency rate, excluding nuclear power, stood at 4 percent in 2009, compared with 68 percent for the United States and 46 percent for Europe, according to a government handout.

If none of the reactors currently idled is reactivated, Japan will have no operating reactor within two months because the two still online will be shut down for routine checks, and the mandatory stress tests.

The government warned in November that the power supply could fall short of demand by 7 percent in peak hours this summer if no reactors are restarted and if demand matches that of 2010.

Hisako Shirado, who evacuated from Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, about 50 km from the crisis-hit plant, to Niigata Prefecture because she was afraid of exposing her two children to radiation, said discussions on restarting reactors “should be held at least after deciding where to finally dispose of nuclear waste.”

Hiromoto Isogai, who lived in Fukushima until November, said a nuclear accident “creates problems that money can’t solve.” He now lives in Yokohama, where his wife and 2-year-old son were evacuated earlier.

While Isogai was still in Fukushima, he was engaged in decontamination work. He now worries about the effect of radiation on his health and on the health of any children he and his wife might have in the future.

“Now that a year has gone by, I get the strong feeling that people who did not experience the disaster are losing interest,” he said.