Japan’s Idled Nuclear Plants, Iran, and Geopolitical Risks

Shiraishi Takashi [Profile]

[2012.04.06] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

The Path to Reactivating Japan’s Idled Nuclear Plants

What does the future hold for nuclear energy in Japan? In remarks delivered at a session of the lower house Budget Committee on March 14, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko admitted that “fundamental difficulties” make the construction of new nuclear power plants unrealistic. Even so, he hinted that the government might give the go-ahead for some of the plants already being built to go into commission as planned, noting that in some cases construction is already more than 90% complete. Rather than deciding across the board whether to finish the projects and bring the plants on line, he suggested, decisions might be made separately for each plant, taking into consideration how much construction work has already been done. With respect to restarting the existing plants that are currently idled, the prime minister said the government would decide if and when to reactivate them on the basis of a political judgment regarding the likelihood of obtaining local community approval.

On March 13, as reported in the Asahi Shimbun the following day, the Nuclear Safety Commission, an organ of the Cabinet Office, gave its general approval to the first-stage assessment reports from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. These reports judged that reactors no. 3 and no. 4 at the Ōi Nuclear Power Plant of Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO), located Ōi, Fukui Prefecture, had satisfactorily passed their “stress tests.” The commission will reportedly issue a final confirmation soon, seeking the implementation of a second-stage assessment. The next step is expected to be a judgment by the prime minister and a troika of his cabinet ministers—Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu, Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Edano Yukio, and Environment Minister Hosono Gōshi (in his capacity as minister of state for nuclear power policy and administration), confirming that the facilities in question can be considered safe. They will then approach local communities to ask for their understanding in allowing the reactors to be restarted. If local approval can be secured, the cabinet will then issue a final decision in favor of reactivation.

The Mainichi Shimbun on March 14 criticized the government’s handling of the issue, suggesting that it was stumbling forward without sufficient care. But sooner or later the authorities will have to bite the bullet and take a decision to restart the nation’s nuclear reactors, which have been falling idle one by one after shutting down for routine safety inspections. Government estimates suggest that if all the country’s nuclear plants remain idle this summer, there will be an average 9.2% shortfall in the electricity supply in the areas served by 9 of the country’s 10 electric power companies. This would affect all of Japan except Okinawa Prefecture. As of February this year, delays in reactivating idled facilities meant that just 6.1% of the country’s nuclear power facilities were in operation. Meanwhile, consumption of fuel for thermal power generation has surged. Over the 12-month period from last March through this February, Japan’s electric power companies consumed 1.3 times more liquefied natural gas than in the previous 12 months, and 2.1 times more fuel oil and crude oil. If the nuclear power plants remain idle, power companies’ total fuel costs are expected to rise by more than ¥3 trillion a year. These costs will go even higher if the price of crude, already above $100 a barrel, rises further as a result of developments in Iran.

In the year since the accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, safety regulations for nuclear power have been strengthened around the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency is pushing for mandatory safety inspections of nuclear plants by international teams of experts, and in the United States the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently adopted a new set of safety rules that the country’s nuclear power plants must comply with by the end of 2016. The new rules require power companies to strengthen the venting systems in General Electric–made reactors (the same type used in the Fukushima Daiichi plant), to install enhanced water-level-metering devices in the spent fuel pools, and to ensure that their backup systems are strong enough to maintain reactor safety even in the event of a major explosion or fire. I hope that the Japanese government will take such developments into consideration and introduce international-level safety regulations here as well, and that that Prime Minister Noda will take the initiative and lead from the front to get the country’s idled nuclear facilities restarted.

In the village of Tomari in Hokkaidō, site of Hokkaidō Electric Power’s Tomari Nuclear Power Plant, the incumbent mayor, Makino Hiroomi, won another term this January without a vote in an uncontested election. In a March 13 interview in Denki Shimbun, an industry newspaper published by the Japan Electric Association, Makino said: “What happened at Fukushima Daiichi was a terrible accident, but it’s almost inconceivable that similar accidents could happen at the other nuclear plants around the country. Media reports suggesting that all of Japan’s nuclear power plants will end up like Fukushima Daiichi have led to a nationwide movement to abandon nuclear power. But given that renewable energy sources are still not an adequate replacement, I think nuclear power is still a key source of electricity. I believe nuclear power generation should continue, premised on measures to allow local residents to live in peace of mind.” I quite agree with the mayor.

The Significance of Iran’s Nuclear Program for Japan

The problem of Iran’s nuclear development program, which I mentioned in passing above, has become the world’s biggest geopolitical risk. The threat that Iran might retaliate against tighter sanctions by blockading the Strait of Hormuz, thus triggering an armed conflict, has receded for the time being. But it seems unlikely that Western sanctions will persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. At the meeting in Washington on March 5 between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, it became clear that although the two leaders agree that all options remain on the table in terms of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, there are still major differences between them when it comes to deciding what actions to take, and when, in order to achieve this.

We have plans to address the Iran crisis separately on Nippon.com in the near future. For now, I will simply note the significance for Japan of the geopolitical risk arising from this crisis. Koyama Takashi, a visiting professor at Akita International University, has written an article that is instructive in this connection. In “Daisanji ‘yudan!’ Iran kiki” (A Third Oil Shock: The Iranian Crisis, Bungei Shunjū, April 2012), Koyama argues that Israel and Iran are already in a de facto state of war. He observes, “For the United States, a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz is a military issue, but for Japan it is a matter of life or death.” Japan imports 90% of its oil from the Middle East, and 85% of it passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Although some of this oil might be rerouted via pipelines to the Red Sea and then shipped to Japan, it would be impossible to cover the entire shortage in this way. Also, the price of oil would surge. This would mean the onset of a third oil shock for Japan.

The Declining International Status of Japan’s Scientific Research

Japan’s global ranking in scientific research is falling, according to “Kagaku kenkyū benchimākingu 2011” (Benchmarking Scientific Research 2011), a report on scientific research papers issued last December by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (an organ of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology). In 1998–2000, Japan had a 9.2% share of the total number of such papers produced by the world’s top 25 ranked countries, putting it in third place. For 2008–10, Japan’s share was 6.6% and its rank was fifth. In terms of the number of “adjusted top 10%” papers, meanwhile, Japan’s share fell from 7.5% (fourth place) in 1998–2000 to 5.9% (seventh place) in 2008–10.(*1) The decline was particularly pronounced in engineering, where Japan’s share fell from 8.4% to 5.3% (from second place to fourth) over the same period. Japan’s share of adjusted top 10% papers fell from 6.6% (third place) to 4.1% (eleventh place) placing Japan behind China (19.0%, second place), South Korea (4.5%, eighth), and Taiwan (4.4%, tenth). Countries like India (3.9%, twelfth), Turkey (3.7%, thirteenth), and Iran (2.7%, fifteenth) are also catching up fast.

In their quarterly reports on business results for October–December 2011, Panasonic, Sony, and Sharp all substantially downgraded their outlooks for the fiscal year ending in March 2012; between them, the three companies now expect to make total losses of ¥1.29 trillion. There are probably many reasons for this. But there can be little doubt that the decline of Japan’s science and technology, and engineering in particular, is at the root of the problem.

(*1) ^ The number “adjusted top 10%” papers refers to the number of papers adjusted in such a manner that one-tenth of this number corresponds to the number that are in the top 10% in terms of the number of citations in each field.

  • [2012.04.06]

Received his PhD in history from Cornell University. Is now president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and president of the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization. He was an executive member of the Cabinet Office's Council for Science and Technology Policy from January 2009 to January 2013. His works include Teikoku to sono genkai (Empire and Its Limits) and Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism (coeditor). Former editor in chief and currently senior editor of Nippon.com.

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