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Japan and Hitachi pin nuclear export hopes on U.K. project in Wales

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo

A nuclear power plant project in Britain is giving Japan a glimmer of hope for spurring infrastructure exports, a key growth strategy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Hitachi Ltd. and the U.K. government started official talks last month on building new reactors in Wales, with a goal of firing them up in the first half of the 2020s.

The outlook for the ¥3 trillion project is unclear, with both sides facing a string of challenges in the talks going forward.

For Tokyo, the plan is one of its few remaining major overseas projects on the horizon, with other nuclear power generation plans discontinued or facing cancellation.

The government’s bet on nuclear power plants as a pillar of infrastructure exports comes as the likes of Germany, Italy, Taiwan and South Korea are pulling out of atomic power generation.

Critics argue that a surge in safety costs and accident worries caused by the 2011 Fukushima disaster, in addition to the lack of viable disposal solutions for radioactive waste, mean there is no justification for keeping faith in nuclear energy. Compounding the sector’s decline is the rapidly dropping cost of tapping such renewable energy sources as wind and solar power.

Still, some emerging economies look like they will need new nuclear power plants, and Japanese builders see few chances to construct new ones anytime soon in Japan.

“The Japanese government has been pushing hard for exports of nuclear power plants but it’s clear that it’s not going well,” said Tadahiro Katsuta, a professor at Meiji University. “The government will spare no effort in giving momentum to the exports.”

If the project in Britain proves successful, it will give the government “a good excuse” to push harder abroad, he said.

Before the official talks began, Hitachi had told Britain it might not take part in the project to build two advanced boiling water reactors on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, because the price tag had soared higher than initially estimated.

But an offer by London to shoulder about two-thirds of the cost convinced Hitachi stay in. Tokyo welcomed its decision to begin the talks.

“The nuclear business overseas is significant … it would lead to strengthening and maintaining human resources and technology for nuclear power in Japan,” Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko told a news conference.

Under the agreement, the British government will subsidize much of the cost through direct investment and loan guarantees, according to sources close to the matter.

“We are currently examining the financial and cost issues of the project, before making a final decision in 2019 on whether to invest in the project,” Hitachi Chief Financial Officer Mitsuaki Nishiyama said Friday at a news conference to announce earnings.

For Hitachi, nuclear power is a core operation. It wants to increase revenue from the business by more than 33 percent to ¥250 billion over the four years through March 2022, mainly through boosting overseas revenue.

Rival Toshiba Corp. exited overseas nuclear operations after incurring huge losses in the United States, a decision that could cripple Tokyo’s efforts to promote Japanese nuclear plants abroad.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., is pursuing a nuclear power plant project in Turkey. But it hit a snag when it saw safety-related costs surge and trading house Itochu Corp. walked away from the project.

In another blow to the government, Vietnam in 2016 decided to abandon a plan to build its first nuclear power plant with Japanese assistance due to tight state finances.

Those failures have led to an increased focus on the new power station in Wales. But London and Hitachi still need to address such issues as how to spread the remainder of the costs among Hitachi, local companies and Japan-backed financial institutions. They also need to determine who should be held liable if there’s a major accident.

They are also at odds over how much the electricity produced at the plant should cost. Britain at one point offered a price some 20 percent lower than what Hitachi wanted, a source familiar with the matter said.

“A key focus of discussions with Hitachi has been and will continue to be achieving lower-cost electricity for consumers,” Greg Clark, British business and energy secretary, told Parliament last month.

The two sides also need to talk to residents and win over those worried about the new power station.

“We have a major multinational and two governments supposed to be democracies playing a high-stakes game of poker … without any transparency or scrutiny for the people that they are representing,” Mei Tomos, a resident of Wales, said at a news conference in Tokyo during a recent visit to Japan.

“We have seen the destruction which nuclear power can cause. It is really too much to expect us to take the same risks. Even if such an accident didn’t happen at Anglesey we will still be faced with over a hundred years of storage of nuclear waste on site which presents a massive danger to us,” another resident, Robert Davies, said at the news conference.