Editorials

The stalled restart of idled reactors

The year 2019 is drawing to a close without any nuclear power reactor idled since the 2011 Fukushima disaster being reactivated. Reactor No. 1 at the Takahama nuclear power plant operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. was initially expected to restart by the year’s end, but work on additional safety features took longer than planned. The power company also was engulfed in a scandal over questionable ties with a now-deceased influential figure in the host town of Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, who for years had been giving money and expensive gifts to Kepco executives while also serving as an adviser to and receiving fees from local businesses on contract for Kepco’s nuclear power business — an issue that shed light on the murky relations between nuclear power plant operators and host municipalities.

Since nuclear plants across Japan were shut down in the wake of the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in March 2011, decisions have been made to decommission 21 reactors across the nation (mostly aging units but also including the reactors at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 plants), or roughly 40 percent of the total.

Power companies meanwhile applied to the Nuclear Regulation Authority for approval of their plans to restart a total of 27 reactors under new safety regulations introduced in 2013. However, the NRA has so far given the nod for restarting only 15 of them, of which just nine at five nuclear power plants have actually been put back online. Even among the plants that have been reactivated, up to seven reactors run by three utilities are expected to be shut down again — starting next spring with reactor No. 1 at Kyushu Electric’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture — as they fail to meet the NRA’s deadline for completing work to defend the plants against terrorism attacks, which was mandated under the 2013 regulations.

In its energy mix for 2030 under the Basic Energy Plan, the government set a target for nuclear power to account for 20 to 22 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. But nuclear power’s share stood at a mere 3 percent in 2017, and even if all 27 reactors are to be reactivated, they are estimated to supply 18 percent of the power demand. As the restart of the idled nuclear plants lags, Japan continues to rely heavily on coal and natural gas-fired thermal power plants to fulfill its electricity needs, and the continued dependence on fossil fuel-fired plants is said to be casting doubt on Japan’s commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. The government should take the cue from the slow restart of nuclear reactors to review its energy plan and place greater emphasis on renewable energy.

The nation’s major power companies — formerly regional monopolies — face tough competition with the liberalization of the electricity business. They seek to improve their finances by restarting their idled nuclear plants and saving on the costs of imported fuel for thermal power plants. But the revamped safety regulations that followed the Fukushima disaster led to a spike in the cost of safety investments on their plants to clear the NRA screening, a process that is also taking longer.

Last month, the NRA gave its approval for restarting the No. 2 reactor at Tohoku Electric Power Co.’s Onagawa plant — six years after the utility applied for the NRA screening. The cost of investing in additional safety features at the plant to get the NRA’s nod has amounted to ¥340 billion, well over the initial estimate. Kyushu Electric has had to spend a total of more than ¥900 billion — four times the initial estimates — on new safety investments on its four reactors that have been reactivated. These inflated costs are added to the electricity costs for consumers. Power companies need to consider whether nuclear power is still the economically rational source of electricity that it is touted to be.

Aside from the increased costs of safety investments, power firms also need to obtain the consent of local host governments to restart nuclear plants. Tepco has already secured the NRA’s go-ahead to reactivate reactors 6 and 7 at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power plant in Niigata Prefecture, but the prefectural government maintains it will consider whether to agree to the restart only after it has completed its own probe into the 2011 disaster at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 plant — which is expected to take several more years. The restart of the Onagawa plant’s No. 2 reactor will need to wait until after 2020, when the work on its new safety features is completed. But the Niigata governor as well as the mayors of host municipalities Ishinomaki and Onagawa have not made it clear if they will consent to the restart.

The future shape of nuclear power generation will have a major impact on Japan’s energy policy and the measures it takes against global warming. The government needs to make an honest assessment of the situation surrounding nuclear power in this country and reconsider whether its nuclear energy plan is feasible.

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