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The white papers issued by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission (JNSC) highlight the difficult situation faced by Japan’s nuclear power industry. The JAEC’s 2008 white paper says that facility utilization rates at Japan’s nuclear power plants dropped to a mere 60.7 percent in fiscal 2007 — in a sharp contrast to an increase of the rates in the last 10 years in the United States, Russia and France.

If Japan’s utilization rates had been higher, they would have reduced the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is required to cut its emissions in the 2008-2012 period by 6 percent from the 1990 level. But its emissions in fiscal 2007 were 8.7 percent higher than the 1990 level.

The JAEC’s white paper estimates that if the nuclear power plants had run at normal utilization rates, Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions would have increased only by 3.7 percent from the 1990 level. It also mentions the suspension of the trial operation of a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, and a delay in the resumption of the operation of the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Fukui Prefecture — shut down since a December 1995 sodium coolant leakage accident. Japan needs to eliminate the technological and management weaknesses that caused these problems.

The biggest reason for the low utilization rates is the stoppage of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power complex in Niigata Prefecture, which was hit by a major earthquake in July 2007 — the theme of the JNSC report. The complex was battered by tremors stronger than the maximum level anticipated by its design. The quake resistance of the nation’s nuclear power plants are now being verified against the tougher standards adopted in 2006. It is imperative that the nuclear power industry continue to scrutinize the geological structures around nuclear power plants and take all necessary measures to ensure that the structures can withstand future quakes.

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