METI Update on Japanese Energy Policy

On April 18, the U.S.-Japan Roundtable convened its quarterly Members Meeting. The group was honored to once again welcome Mr. Hiromichi Nakahara, Director of the Office of International Nuclear Energy Cooperation, Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). Mr. Nakahara provided a very thorough update on the presentation he provided the group in October 2015, encompassing the significant developments in Japanese nuclear energy in the intervening year and a half.

1) Update on Fukushima 

Mr. Nakahara opened his presentation with a synopsis of the status of the Fukushima Daiichi site, noting that just over a month prior, the sixth anniversary of the disaster had passed. After emphasizing that the situation at Fukushima is entirely different from that of Chernobyl- to which it is too commonly compared- Mr. Nakahara provided three key updates:

  • The ice wall is progressing positively, and is almost fully frozen. It is expected that the process of freezing the ice wall will be completed by the end of this year. The wall is intended to prevent contamination of ocean water by containing contaminated ground water near the accident site.

  • In January 2017, a robot successfully captured the first image of the interior of Unit 2. This is a key development in being able to move forward and determine the best course of action to clean up the badly-damaged and highly-radioactive unit.

  • Finally, Mr. Nakahara emphasized that the decommissioning process at Fukushima is just beginning, and that many more technologies will be needed to successfully complete the project in the coming decades, reiterating a call made by Mr. Hirohide Hirai, Director-General for International Energy and Technology Cooperation, at the U.S.-Japan Roundtable Annual Conference in December 2016.

2) Japan’s Electricity Market Reform

Next, Mr. Nakahara provided an update on both the process of liberalizing the Japanese electricity market, and the status of the country’s nuclear reactors. He elucidated that:

  • Full liberalization of the retail market occurred in 2016, and legal unbundling should be complete by 2020.
  • The process of liberalizing the market is progressing, but has also presented challenges such as increased competition and need for social responsibility, resulting in the establishment of a new fund for Fukushima Unit 1 decommissioning.
  • Regarding the nuclear industry specifically, the safety standards are very high to restart nuclear reactors. Three reactors are currently operational, with seven more having passed Nuclear Regulation Authority review. So far, however, 15 have been determined to be permanently shut down and decommissioned. Nonetheless, the government is maintaining its stated goal of achieving 20% nuclear energy in the national mix by 2030.

3) Fast Reactor Development

The final section of Mr. Nakahara’s presentation focused on Japan’s recent review and revitalization of its fast reactor development. He provided an insightful timeline of recent efforts to examine the Japanese fast reactor program:

  • September 2016: Ministerial Meeting for the Nuclear Energy Policy makes an historic decision to firmly maintain its nuclear fuel cycle policy and R&D of fast reactors, and to form a Council on Fast Reactor Development. It also rules that a final decision regarding the future of the Monju fast breeder reactor will be made by the end of 2016.
  • December 2016: Ministerial Meeting for the Nuclear Energy Policy issues final decision that the Monju reactor will not be restarted. Emphasis is placed, however, on the lessons and technologies that can be derived from the Monju example, and applied to future fast reactor tests. The Strategic Working Group is also formed to work toward the formulation of a “Strategic Roadmap,” with the aim to finalize this plan by 2018.
  • March 2017: The Strategic Working Group holds its first meeting to determine members and topics for review. Members include METI, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), and Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

Mr. Nakahara’s presentation can be viewed in its entirety below:

170418Update on Japans Nuclear Sector