Time to Stop Nursing the Nuclear Power Industry


The resumption of commercial operations at a nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture last September might seem to bode well for the comeback of nuclear energy in Japan after the nationwide shutdown precipitated by the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. But the author argues that the government’s policy of “long-term nursing care” for an unsustainable industry is merely delaying the inevitable while exposing the nation to unacceptable risks.

On August 11, Unit 1 of Kyūshū Electric Power Company’s Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima became Japan’s first nuclear reactor to be restarted after receiving approval by the Nuclear Regulation Authority under its new set of safety standards. The Kyūshū plant resumed commercial operations on September 10, almost four and a half years after the nuclear disaster triggered by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Supporters of nuclear power in Japan can only hope that the developments at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant will set the pace for facilities around the nation, but they have little cause for optimism on that score. Unit 2 at the same Kagoshima plant got restarted on October 15 and its commercial operations are set to resume in November. But the prospect of a 2015 restart for other reactors is slim.

In addition to Sendai-1 and Sendai-2, the NRA has approved Units 3 and 4 of Kansai Electric’s Takahama plant (on February 12) and Unit 3 of Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant (on July 15) for operation. But none of these are expected to start up any time this year. The Takahama units are facing lengthy delays following an April 14 injunction by the Fukui District Court, and Ikata-3 has little chance of clearing the NRA’s regulatory hurdles before the year’s end.

Dim Prospects and a Growing Burden

The obstacles to the industry’s revival will scarcely disappear after 2015. Fukushima Prefecture is lobbying to have all its remaining nuclear plants scrapped, and local opposition to resumption of operations predominates in Niigata Prefecture, Shizuoka Prefecture, and the village of Tōkai in Ibaraki Prefecture. Between them, these four locales account for 15 (about a third) of the nation’s nuclear reactors. Four other units (one at Japan Atomic Power’s Tsuruga plant, two at Hokuriku Electric’s Shika plant, and one at Tōhoku Electric’s Higashidōri facility) are facing likely decommissioning owing to earthquake hazards. Kansai Electric is appealing a May 2014 court order against restart of two reactors at its Ōi facility, and more unfavorable rulings are possible in the months ahead.

The electric utilities themselves are expected to scrap a number of older units in consideration of cost factors. Reactors are licensed to operate for no more than 40 years, and the upgrades required to win an extension under the new regulations would be prohibitively expensive in many cases. Five older reactors were officially retired for this reason last April (Kansai Electric’s Mihama-1 and Mihama-2, Japan Atomic Power’s Tsuruga-1, Chūgoku Electric’s Shimane-1, and Kyūshū Electric’s Genkai-1).

Even those facilities that make it back online face a tough road ahead. The Fukushima disaster has drastically altered the Japanese public’s perception of nuclear energy’s risks. Henceforth, every accident, issue, or natural disaster has the potential to cause an extended or permanent shutdown at any given plant. And the construction of new reactors is virtually out of the question.

The goal of returning to pre-Fukushima levels of nuclear power generation is quite simply out of reach. Japan currently has 43 operable nuclear reactors (excluding the five already decommissioned). Realistically, no more than half of these can be expected back online before 2020, and they will be under intense scrutiny as each new problem—both in Japan and overseas—calls their safety and viability into question once again.

Nuclear power imposes heavy cost burdens that can only grow in the years ahead. Thus far the government has borne the brunt of the costs and risks, nurturing the industry with subsidies to the host communities and prefectures, funding for research and development, and guaranteed assistance with compensation and cleanup costs in the event of an accident, while allowing the electric utilities to pass the costs of the nuclear fuel cycle to their customers. In today’s climate, this amounts to long-term nursing care for a terminally ill industry. An end to these lavish supports is the electric power industry’s worst nightmare.

Failings of the New Safety Standards

Despite the reforms instituted in the wake of the 2011 meltdown, the fundamental safety issues surrounding nuclear power in Japan remain unresolved.

The final report of the government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations, along with a slew of outside reports, points to the culture of complacency that undermined Japan’s pre-2011 nuclear safety regime and left the country—with its high population density and high risk of natural disasters—vulnerable to a catastrophic accident. It was clear that the government needed to institute a far stronger regulatory regime if it wanted to resurrect Japan’s nuclear power program. In September 2012, it launched the Nuclear Regulation Authority, and in July 2013, the NRA adopted new safety standards for reactors in use at nuclear power stations.

Unfortunately, the new regulatory regime is also inadequate to ensure the safety of Japan’s nuclear power facilities.

The first problem is that the new safety standards on which the screening and inspection of facilities are to be based are simply too lax. While it is true that the new rules are based on international standards, the international standards themselves are predicated on the status quo. They have been set so as to be attainable by most of the reactors already in operation.

In essence, the NRA made sure that all Japan’s existing reactors would be able to meet the new standards with the help of affordable piecemeal modifications—back-fitting, in other words. In practice, they need only to add a new layer of emergency management and some back-up equipment to meet the new standards for emergency preparedness. The estimates for earthquake intensity and tsunami height in each locale have been revised upward, but not to the point where they would necessitate fundamental design changes.

The second basic problem is that the new standards do not cover all the levels of “defense in depth” advocated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in its seven-stage International Nuclear Events Scale. They extend only as far as Level 4 (“control of severe conditions including prevention of accident progression and mitigation of the consequences of a severe accident”), stopping short of Level 5 requirements for responding to accidents that threaten the surrounding area through significant release of radioactive materials.

Under the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness, the prefectural and municipal governments within a 30-kilometer radius of a nuclear power facility are given full responsibility for emergency preparedness and evacuation planning geared to nuclear accidents with wider consequences, whose impact extends beyond the confines of the plant compound. Under the law, the plans must incorporate all items on a mandated checklist, but they are not subject to any outside review. The NRA does not view local preparedness or evacuation plans for a nuclear disaster as part of its regulatory regime.

Fukushima’s Ongoing Disaster

The risks attached to nuclear power are of a completely different magnitude from those associated with other civilian technologies. A nuclear accident can cause catastrophic damage extending over a vast area and persisting for many years. As of September 2015, the number of people displaced by the Fukushima accident stood at 107,700. Damages from the accident have already reached ¥11 trillion, and the final tally will doubtless soar to several times that amount. Moreover, the safety problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have yet to be resolved.

The three basic conditions for controlling a nuclear accident are stopping the chain reaction, cooling the fuel, and containing the radioactive material. By these criteria, the Fukushima accident has yet to be brought under control after more than four years. The water-injection system used to cool the molten fuel has been plagued by reliability issues. As for containment, the radioactive materials spewed over a vast area during the accident can never be recovered, nor can the radioactive wastewater that has been discharged into the ocean. Furthermore, workers have been unable to pinpoint the location of the highly radioactive fuel that leaked out of the reactors during the meltdown.

In many respects, the progress and causes of the accident remain unclear to this day. Without knowing these things, how can we institute effective safety measures to ensure that such accidents will not occur in the future?

Shifting to End-of-Life Care

Immediately following the March 2011 disaster, the Fukushima plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, ordered rolling blackouts to cope with the drop in electric power supply to eastern Japan. The blackouts ended in April the same year, and since then the electricity supply has been stable.

Three factors appear to have averted the energy crisis many were predicting. First, it appears that Japan had considerable excess capacity in the form of unused or underutilized conventional thermal power generators. Second, electricity demand remains far below the peak levels registered before the 2008 global recession. And third, the Japanese people have worked diligently to hold down electricity consumption.

Electricity generation in Japan peaked at 1,195 terawatt hours in 2007. By 2013, it had dropped 8.8% to 1,090.5 TWh. Meanwhile, Japan’s population as a whole, and its working population in particular, is shrinking inexorably, as is its manufacturing base. This means that electricity consumption should continue to decline naturally, even without government intervention. With concerted policy measures to boost energy efficiency and expand the use of renewables, Japan should be able to wean itself from nuclear energy completely by 2030, even while gradually curtailing the use of fossil fuels.

As noted above, the electric utilities cannot hope to restart more than about 20 of its reactors by 2020 under the best of conditions. It will not be difficult to shut down those 20 reactors by 2030.

The electric utilities would doubtless resist any plan to scrap the remaining reactors and reduce the nation’s dependence on nuclear power to zero, but they could probably be induced to go along if the authorities simultaneously drew up measures to cushion the financial blow. The government will also need to compensate localities for the loss of jobs and subsidies associated with the nuclear power plants by funding programs to foster the growth of other industries. Now is the time to plan for a shift from long-term nursing to end-of-life care for Japan’s unsustainable nuclear power industry.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on October 7; updated in English on October 16. Banner photo: Employees at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture take part in an emergency drill on October 1 in preparation for the restart of the plant’s Unit 2 reactor. © Jiji.)

earthquake tsunami Sendai nuclear power Fukushima accident NRA IAEA radioactive meltdown