Bucking public sentiment, Atomic Energy Commission backs nuclear power for national energy mix

AP

The policy-setting Atomic Energy Commission on Thursday called for nuclear power to remain a key component of the nation’s energy supply despite broad public support for a less nuclear-reliant society.

The commission recommended in a report that nuclear power account for at least 20 percent of Japan’s energy supply in 2030, citing a previous government energy plan. It said rising utility costs caused by expensive fossil fuel imports and slow reactor restarts have affected the economy.

The 322-page “nuclear white paper” is the commission’s first since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011. Much of it explains government efforts to clean up the damaged plant and tighten safety standards.

The resumption of the nuclear policy report is a sign of accelerating efforts to put more reactors back online.

“The government should make clear the long-term benefit of nuclear power generation and consider measures that need to be taken,” the report said.

The country shut down all nuclear reactors after the 2011 crisis but has restarted five of them. With up to four reactors operating last year, they accounted for less than 2 percent of Japan’s power.

A massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at three reactors at the six-reactor Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate due to radiation leaks or concerns about the impact on health. Government, Diet and private investigations blamed an inadequate safety culture at the plant’s manager, Tokyo Electric Power Co., as well as its collusion with regulators, leading to nuclear safety and regulatory reforms.

Thursday’s report comes as regulators are making final preparations to certify the safety of two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture, also operated by Tepco. The utility says restarting the giant plant, one of its three nuclear facilities, is vital to finance the massive cost of the Fukushima cleanup and compensation for disaster-hit residents.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority on Wednesday deemed Tepco “competent” to run the plant safely and its final greenlight is expected within weeks, though the actual restart of the two units could be months away, after an on-site inspection and local consent. Many oppose the restarts, saying Tepco should not be allowed to run another nuclear plant until it fully investigates the cause of the Fukushima meltdowns and completes the cleanup.

The report also endorsed continuing the government’s ambitious pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle program based on plutonium, despite a decision last year to scrap the experimental Monju reactor, the centerpiece of its plutonium fuel program, following decades of poor safety and technical problems. Japan faces growing international scrutiny over its plutonium stockpile because the element can be used to make atomic weapons.

Japan’s stockpile currently stands at 47 tons — 10 tons on hand and the rest in Britain and France, which reprocess and store spent fuel for Japan, which is quickly running out of storage space. Plans to start up the controversial Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture are slated for next year, but critics say that would only add to the problem.

Without the prospect of achieving a plutonium-burning fast reactor, Japan has resorted to burning a mixture of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium oxides called MOX in conventional reactors as a last ditch measure to get rid of the plutonium. The report calls it “the only realistic method of making use of plutonium.” MOX is also burned in reactors in Europe.

The need to reduce its plutonium stockpile adds to the push for reactor restarts. It would require 16 to 18 reactors to burn enough MOX to keep its plutonium stockpile from growing, according to a pre-Fukushima meltdown target set by the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, an umbrella group for Japanese utilities. The target is unchanged, though widely seen as too optimistic.