Future of Nuclear Energy: Japan


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Future of Nuclear Energy: Japan
April 5, 2016

The Japanese government has been an early and staunch supporter of civil nuclear energy, despite some highly public incidents that have left some members of the public with an aversion often described as a “nuclear allergy.” Most recently, the country suffered an unprecedented natural disaster, which contributed to a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that displaced thousands. Though the nuclear accident itself resulted in no deaths, fears over the safety of the country’s nuclear program prompted the temporary closure of all Japanese nuclear power plants.

However, for Japan — a resource-poor island nation — nuclear energy is one of the few energy options that can provide sufficient electricity for its industrial and residential needs and be considered relatively “domestic.” Partly as a result, the government is slowly reactivating its nuclear program. Despite this change, the degree to which nuclear power should play a role in the future of Japan is still a point of contention among politicians and the public.

The History of Nuclear Energy in Japan

Japan was among the early adopters of civil nuclear power, at the forefront of research into the potential of nuclear energy as early as the 1930s. In 1952 the nation took its first steps toward a policy that included nuclear energy as key to energy security and economic development. This position grew out of the United States’ recognition of Japan’s sovereignty under the Treaty of San Francisco. This treaty, along with the Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan, secured the U.S.-Japan Alliance and its objective to maintain peace and prosperity in the Pacific region.

In 1955 Japan passed the Atomic Energy Basic Law, which declared that Japan’s nuclear energy would be restricted to peaceful purposes. One year later, Japan launched the Atomic Energy Commission to promote the development of nuclear power. Japan’s nuclear energy industry was developed with the consent and supervision of bilateral agreements, and later multilateral agencies, charged with safeguarding nuclear technology. The United States shepherded Japan’s emergence as a leader in the nuclear energy industry, first by sharing its reactor technology– specifically supplying and regulating transportation of nuclear fuel- and later as peer in building global nuclear technology safeguards.

Convincing the Japanese people that nuclear energy was safe posed a great challenge, but was vital in order to grow Japan’s post-WWII economy and improve its low-cost energy mix. The government launched a campaign to promote a widespread belief in the absolute safety of Japan’s civil nuclear energy, now known as the “safety myth.” This public faith enabled nuclear energy’s expansion throughout the country.

While Japan was among the earliest adopters of civil nuclear energy, the country’s reliance on it increased after the 1973 oil shocks exposed the risks of being dependent on outside suppliers. Since then, Japan’s nuclear investments have become a strategic priority. Japan’s nuclear industry has established itself as a global technology leader and an example of how safe use of nuclear energy can help drive a country’s electricity generation and constitute a stable electricity grid.

The Japan Power Demonstration Reactor, a prototype boiling water reactor, began producing electricity for commercial use in 1963. It provided the country with experience and understanding it would later apply to its development of commercial reactors. It was retired in 1976. In the following years, Japan would use the decommissioning of that first reactor as a model for decommissioning its civil nuclear fleet.

Japan’s first commercial reactor was Tokai 1. Imported from the United Kingdom, the 160 MWe gas-cooled reactor went online in July 1966. Since then, the country has relied solely on light water reactors (LWRs) — either boiling water reactors (BWRs) or pressurized water reactors (PWRs) — that utilize enriched uranium. The first three LWRs went online in the 1970s.

The Japanese government and the public have embraced environmental protection as a key national priority. Japan pushed forward the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, in which it pledged to significantly reduce its carbon emissions through heavy reliance on nuclear energy, a carbon neutral energy source. In its next energy plan, Japan announced in March 2002 the increased role that nuclear energy would have in its energy future. The 10-year plan called for a 30-percent increase in nuclear energy generation through the addition of nine to 12 new nuclear plans by 2011. However, global economic factors made this goal unrealistic. The Asian Recession that began in 1997 hampered Japan’s economic growth. The Great Recession of 2008 diminished U.S. and European purchasing power, and Japan’s relatively strong yen led to increased prices of Japanese goods for export.

By 2011, only five additional reactors had begun to operate. At the beginning of 2011 the country had 54 operational reactors, two under construction, and an additional 12 planned.

Fukushima Daiichi

When the earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, the eleven nuclear reactors at the four plants nearest the epicenter shut down automatically. The reactors behaved as designed by stopping the fission process. The following day, at 7:03 p.m., a nuclear emergency was declared at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in the Fukushima Prefecture. Reactors 1, 2, and 3 were running when the quake struck. While emergency diesel generators were activated to cool the reactor units from the residual heat, tsunami-related flooding breached the reactor walls and knocked out the emergency diesel generators.

>>Watch TIME’s “Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Explained in Four Minutes”

Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered residents within a three-kilometer radius to evacuate, while everyone else within 10 kilometers was ordered to remain indoors. The pressure within the three containment vessels continued to rise, and on the second day TEPCO officials vented the primary containment vessels (PCVs) as a precautionary measure. The rising pressure of the containment vessels was a strong indication that something was awry.

An aerial view of Fukushima Daiichi

On March 12, an explosion of built-up hydrogen gas at Unit 1 destroyed the upper part of the external building, injuring four people and releasing radioactive gas. The evacuation radius was subsequently expanded to 20 kilometers. On March 14, an explosion at the Reactor 3 building injured eleven, while leaving its spent fuel pool exposed. On March 15, Unit 2 experienced a suppression unit breach and Unit 4 suffered both an explosion in the reactor building and a fire. Work to minimize damage continued in the following weeks. On March 31, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) determined that the water sampled near the plant’s seawater discharge point contained 4,385 times the maximum safety levels due to the radioactive plume from the accident. The real water contamination problems — that the plant was leaking radioactive material — would become evident only later.

“The period of intense [radioactive] release was relatively short and the open nature of the coast resulted in rapid flushing of the radionuclides in the coastal sea water,” stated a report from Biogeosciences Discussions. “The decline was curbed in June 2011 when remaining radioactivity at a relatively higher level indicates a continuous release of radionuclides from the power plant.” The increased radioactivity was located near the intake structures of Units 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The Fukushima meltdown rated a 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, the highest-level rating, and is equal to the Chernobyl, Ukraine nuclear power plant accident of 1986. However, in Fukushima’s case the radiation release is an estimated 10 percent of what was released at Chernobyl. While an estimated 15,884 people died as a result of the tsunami as of February 2014, no deaths have been directly linked to the events at Fukushima.

>>Read more about global perspectives one year after Fukushima.

The Economic Aftermath of Fukushima

The effects of the Fukushima accident on both Japan’s nuclear energy program and its economy were devastating, with early assessments estimating that the Fukushima disaster caused $100 billion in damages. While TEPCO was able to achieve a state of quasi-cold shutdown of Fukushima, the utility’s handling of the accident and lack of preparation to mitigate such an event was widely criticized by the government, nuclear experts, the media, and the public.

Nearly one year later, in early May 2012, the last of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors went offline, and shortly thereafter the government agreed to invest ¥1 trillion ($12.5 billion) of capital to keep the company afloat and ensure the continued generation of electricity for the utility’s 45 million customers, which includes the entire population of Tokyo. A key part of the bailout and 10-year restructuring plan was the condition that TEPCO be partially nationalized, with the government acquiring more than half of the company’s shares and the option to expand its ownership stake in the future. In addition, TEPCO has been fully compensating citizens who used to live in the 20-km exclusive zone, spurring some controversy and aggravating societal rifts.

Without nuclear energy generation, Japanese utilities were forced to look to other sources in order to continue to power the country. Major Japanese companies turned to imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Experts at METI estimated that replacing the production of nuclear energy with LNG would increase annual costs by more than $37 billion, which is roughly equivalent to 0.7 percent of gross domestic product. METI also stated that electricity costs would need to increase by as much as 15 percent to maintain electricity generation levels while the country’s nuclear program was offline. In September 2012, TEPCO raised consumer rates by 8.5 percent, boosting electricity sales by 9.9 percent.

By 2012, Japan became the world’s top importer of LNG. In 2013, Japan paid a record $68.98 billion for 87mn metric tons of LNG. The all-time high cost was a major contributor to that year’s trade deficit of $112.06 billion, an increase of more than 65 percent from 2012, marking a third consecutive year of a trade deficit for Japan.

The Restart Debate and the Future of Nuclear Energy in Japan

After the events of Fukushima the Japanese government replaced both NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in September 2012. The NRA was formed as a department of the Ministry of the Environment, rather than METI, which NISA had been under, in order the relieve concerns over conflicts of interest. The newly minted agency’s first mission was to write new safety standards and response guidelines for the country’s nuclear reactors. These prescribed tasks and criteria that each reactor must meet before the operator can apply for review for compliance with safety regulations.

The NRA released new nuclear guidelines in 2013. Among the requirements are the following:

  • Operators must construct secondary control centers set apart from the power plant;
  • Special exhaust systems for hydrogen must be implemented;
  • Geological and other experts may be called in to conduct searches at nuclear power plants for any signs of fault movement up to 400,000 years ago; and
  • Filtered vents must be installed to help reduce the discharge of radioactive substances.

Meeting the new standards will cost an estimated $700 million to $1 billion per unit. As of March 2014, roughly $12.3 billion had been spent on compliance.

While several reactors have been submitted for safety review, a recent Reuters analysis reports that many will not pass the stringent inspections. The report estimates that nuclear energy will never contribute more than 10 percent of Japan’s electricity generation.

A large portion of the national discussion on reactor restarts has been in the political sphere. In July 2011, just months after the Fukushima meltdown, Japan formed an Energy & Environment Council (Enecan) to make recommendations on Japan’s energy future up to 2050. Specifically, it was tasked with deciding whether nuclear energy should be a part of that future, considering the scenarios of nuclear energy contributions to the country’s overall electricity generation of 0 percent, 15 percent or 20-25 percent for the medium term. In September 2012, Enecan released the recommendation that Japan phase out nuclear energy entirely by 2040. The recommendation was met with approval by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), but with condemnation by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which felt the move was not feasible. Less than a week later the DPJ-backed cabinet changed its stance, saying the recommendations constituted “a reference document.” Enecan was disbanded by the end of the year.

That same year, in December, the LDP took control of the Diet’s lower house in a decisive election and expressed support of restarting Japan’s reactor fleet. After a July 2013 election, the LDP took control in the Diet’s upper house, and later that year issued a draft Basic Energy Plan which indicated that nuclear energy would critical to both restoring the nation’s damaged economy and combating climate change.

In February 2014, the NRA announced plans to fast-track the safety review of the nuclear reactors. The Authority’s head, Shunichi Tanaka, said it was likely that some of the reactors would become operational during the 2014 fiscal year.

Throughout all other developments, rigorous work continues at the site of Fukushima Daiichi to mitigate damage and contamination as effectively as possible. Studies continue to determine the extent to which the nuclear fuel in the reactors has melted. Meanwhile, TEPCO continues to remove debris from the reactors as possible, having successfully removed the largest piece of debris from Unit 3 in August 2015. September also saw a significant development as the Fukushima Daiichi drainage system entered into operation, after earning the approval of fishermen’s associations. The system treats contaminated water that has breached the site, before discharging it into the ocean.

Furthermore, the state continues to make progress in efforts to normalize the lives of those affected by the nuclear accident. By the end of April 2016, the Japanese government hopes to lift a nuclear evacuation order for the Fukushima Prefecture city of Minamisoma. Should this plan come to fruition, more than 10,000 residents will have the opportunity to return to their hometown.

>>What do experts have to say five years after Fukushima? Don’t miss our exclusive “Lessons from Fukushima” interview video series<<

Reentry into the Nuclear Sphere

Ultimately, the Japanese government has reemerged in favor of pursuing nuclear power, recognizing the necessity of atomic energy in its fuel mix. The state has spent months developing its energy plan, releasing a first draft in April 2015. This initial proposal created a stir as, following months of study and debate, it proposed that nuclear be included in the 2030 energy mix at all. This release came one day after the trade ministry released estimates of future power generation costs, which projected nuclear to be the cheapest source- as low as 10.1 ¥/kWh by 2030.

Over the next several months, the plan underwent intense scrutiny and revisions. In June 2015, the draft plan set the share of nuclear to be 20-22% of the country’s energy generation by 2030, and was approved by a consultative committee. A one-month period of public consultation ensued, after which METI formally confirmed the adoption of the plan in July, reiterating that nuclear could constitute up to 22% of future power generation. Though Japan now targets less nuclear power than it did before Fukushima, and expects renewables to constitute a greater share, its goal is significant, realistic, and will be vital for Japan’s energy autonomy and sustainability.

To this end, the NRA began a lengthy process to review all aspects of safety, design, operation, etc. at a total of 25 existing reactors so far. The Japanese government aims to find the balance between pursuing nuclear restart at an ambitious pace, yet doing so in the safest possible manner. Of the reactors under review, five so far have obtained operational approval.

On August 11, 2015, Kyushu Electric Power Co. made history as it restarted Sendai No. 1, becoming the first nuclear reactor to restart in Japan. Fuel had been reloaded in July, after which the reactor passed further inspections. Following the initial restart, the plant ramped up operations steadily over the course of one month. With only one minor incident, in which tiny cracks were detected in five cooling system pipes that carry seawater and quickly plugged, the restart was an overwhelming success. On September 10, 2015, Sendai No. 1 passed its final NRA inspections and officially reentered commercial operation, producing at full capacity and contributing nuclear-generated electricity to the grid.

While Japan has about 43 operable reactors (at the time of this article’s publication), the Kyushu EPC’s 890-MW Sendai 1 and 2, and Kansai EPC’s 870-MW Takahama 3 are the only ones that are officially operational. Yet due to a court injunction that was issued March 10, 2016, Takahama 3 has temporarily shut down. Takahama 4 had a brief restart in February 2016, but technical issues forced the utility to revert the reactor within weeks. Pending the appeal of the court injunction, both Takahama reactors remain shut down. On March 23, 2016, having cleared regulators’ safety screenings, Shikoku Electric Power Company announced plans to restart commercial operation of its 890-megawatt Ikata 3 pressurized water reactor as early as July 2016.