Reference | FYI

Tohoku reactor restart: What is the state of Japan's nuclear policy?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In late November, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) gave the green light for restarting the No. 2 reactor at Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s Onagawa plant in Miyagi Prefecture, which had been damaged in the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. The announcement once again put the spotlight on the country’s nuclear power policy, not only in Tohoku but nationwide.

Why did the Onagawa restart attract so much attention?

While the Onagawa plant is actually the second damaged on 3/11, after the Tokai No. 2 power station in Ibaraki Prefecture, to pass the NRA’s new safety regulations for nuclear power plants prepared after the disaster, it happens to be the nuclear plant closest to the epicenter of the magnitude 9 quake that struck off the Tohoku coast that day.

The Onagawa facility is located near Ishinomaki, which received extensive damage and much domestic and international media attention after the tsunami claimed the lives of 74 Okawa Elementary School students.

In addition, the Onagawa reactor, which was flooded on 3/11, is the first boiling water reactor to have its restart application approved by the NRA.

There are three kinds of nuclear reactors in operation in Japan: 14 pressured water reactors (PWRs), four advanced boiling water reactors (ABWRs) and 13 boiling water reactors (BWRs), which are the same kind as those at the Fukushima No. 1 plant destroyed by the 3/11 quake and tsunami. The PWRs are considered more technologically stable than the other kinds, and have a better ability to contain radiation.

Now that the NRA has greenlighted Onagawa’s restart, does that mean it will happen anytime soon?

That depends on a number of factors. The Onagawa plant is not ready to be fired up tomorrow. It must first complete the installation of various anti-disaster measures, including a 29-meter-high, 800-meter-long seawall along the Pacific coast to guard against tsunami as high as 23.1 meters. That will not be completed until sometime in fiscal 2020, which begins April 1.

Furthermore, various local governments, including Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture, will have to give their consent to the restart. That could involve long, drawn out negotiations between the utility and local residents and politicians. It’s also probable that lawyers and local citizens opposed to a restart will seek a court injunction to halt the move based on safety concerns. If a court approves an injunction, that will create further delays.

How many other nuclear power plants are there and what are their statuses?

As of this month, there are nine reactors officially in operation. Four belong to Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco), which provides electricity mainly to Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Hyogo, Shiga and Wakayama prefectures. Another four belong to Kyushu Electric Power Co. One of Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s reactors at its Ikata plant is also operating.

Another six reactors have made improvements to meet the new, post-3/11 quake safety standards and have received NRA approval to restart. These include two reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings’ Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture, two of the four reactors at Kepco’s Takahama plant (the other two are in operation) in Fukui Prefecture, one reactor at Kepco’s Mihama plant (the other two have been decommissioned), also in Fukui Prefecture, and one reactor at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tokai No. 2 plant in Ibaraki Prefecture. The other reactor at the facility has been decommissioned.

Nearly a dozen reactors are now in the process of undergoing safety reviews and will have to upgrade their facilities to meet tougher NRA standards for disaster preparedness, and then, if they receive approval to restart, will go through the process of obtaining local consent.

These include reactors in Hokkaido, Aomori, Shizuoka, Ishikawa, Fukui and Shimane prefectures.

Finally, another nine reactors have not applied to be restarted under the new regulations, and 24 reactors, including all six Fukushima No. 1 plant reactors and all four Fukushima No. 2 plant reactors, as well as four of Kepco’s 11 reactors in Fukui Prefecture, are being decommissioned.

How much electricity does nuclear power provide?

Figures vary, sometimes greatly, depending on how many plants in operation were shut down for inspection during a particular year. The latest figures from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Agency for Natural Resources show that in 2017, nuclear power provided 3.1 percent of Japan’s electricity. The Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a nonprofit research institute, estimates that based on its own surveys of utilities, nuclear provided 4.7 percent of Japan’s electricity last year.

What about the future for nuclear power in Japan?

The government’s long-term energy policy for 2030 calls for nuclear power to make up around 20 to 22 percent of the nation’s energy mix, and it is pushing hard for the restart of as many idled reactors as possible. By then, the plan calls for renewable energy to account for 22 to 24 percent of the mix, LNG to make up 27 percent, coal 26 percent and oil 3 percent.

But the obstacles to restarting, or continuing to operate, nuclear plants in the coming years are vast. In addition to local opposition that could delay restarts for months or years, costing the utilities money, they include such issues as the economics of running reactors past 40 years, for which the utilities must first spend money to upgrade their facilities in order to meet new NRA standards regarding reactors older than four decades.

While Kepco has secured permission to operate three reactors already over 40 years old for another two decades at the most, other utilities with reactors currently more than 30 years old — such as Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa No. 1 reactor (34 years old) — will have to decide within a few years whether it’s worth the investment of money and time to apply for a two-decade extension or whether it’s cheaper to decommission.

A second problem has to do with spent nuclear fuel generated by the restarted reactors.

Tokyo is making efforts to find local governments able and willing to have a midterm spent fuel storage facility built in their backyard, and has agreed to offer financial incentives for anyone willing to accept a facility. No luck so far. Meanwhile, in Fukui Prefecture, which has the largest concentration of reactors (13 commercial reactors plus the Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor) in the nation, Gov. Tatsuji Sugimoto is insisting that such storage facilities be built outside the prefecture. His position could lead to other prefectures hosting nuclear power plants to take a firmer stance with utilities and the central government over what to do with spent nuclear fuel when they come seeking local consent for their own restart plans.