The Real US Motivation For Japan To Keep Nuclear Power

Last week the odd political dance between the US and Japan ended with Japan backing off of their plan to phase out nuclear power. The US claimed heavily that is was over proliferation issues but mentioned as an aside it would hurt the US nuclear energy sector. This seemed quite odd, why the US would be so worried about Japan’s civilian nuclear power program. The proliferation excuse was very flawed and made no sense.

Ending nuclear power generation would stop the fuel cycle in Japan meaning no new plutonium would be created. This then would only leave the issue of what to do with all the spent fuel and plutonium already created in Japan. A wide array of options exist to deal with the proliferation issue yet the US pretended to be oblivious to the multiple ways to solve this problem declaring the only solution would be for Japan to instead keep making even more spent fuel….

So why does the US really need Japan to not phase out nuclear power?

There are three companies capable of currently building nuclear reactors in the US.
Areva/EDF from France, they have the EPR reactor. Two are attempting to be built currently. One in France and the other in Finland. Both are massively over budget and have had a long history of technical failures in the building process. Currently there are no plans to build an EPR in the US.

Toshiba/Westinghouse has the AP1000 reactor design. This design seems to be the reactor of choice for all the possible new reactor builds in the US. Westinghouse was bought by Toshiba. Toshiba owns 87% of the company this leaves the company under the ownership of the Japanese company.

The third is GE-Hitachi Nuclear. Hitachi owns 60% of this company leaving is slightly in controlling ownership by the Japanese company. Looking at the activity of both sides of the partnership, the Hitachi side appears to be the active partner building or upgrading nuclear facilities. GE-Hitachi has a couple of newer reactor designs, the ABWR and ESBWR. Both GE-Hitachi and Toshiba sell the ABWR. All have been built in Japan or Asia. Two were planned for the US at the South Texas Project. That nuclear plant project has been officially scrapped leaving no ABWR units built or planned in the US. The ESBWR is still in the approval process, none are planned in the US.

Mitsubishi also does some business in the US but does not currently have an approved reactor design for the US. They have recently come under fire for the design flaws in the steam generators for PWR reactors at San Onofre that may cause the plant to be scrapped.  Mitsubishi is a Japanese company with no US partnership.

Areva has no planned reactors in the US. Toshiba/Westinghouse is owned by a Japanese company. GE-Hitachi is 60% owned by the Japanese company and Hitachi has played the active role.

Other nuclear industry companies in the US include Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, Fluor and Shaw. These companies do construction and engineering of nuclear plant builds based on the designs of the big companies listed above. Only Babcock & Wilcox has a reactor design, the SMR that is not ready for commercial deployment and has not been given any approvals by the NRC yet.

The US nuclear industry is apparently very dependent on Japan. The two major players in reactor design, fuel production and reactor maintenance are not really US companies. When Germany declared their nuclear phase out, Siemens announced they were closing their nuclear division to focus on other energy sectors. The US nuclear industry has openly admitted their domestic business is waning. If Japan ends their nuclear power program, Toshiba/Westinghouse, Mitsubishi and GE-Hitachi may either end their nuclear divisions or drastically cut them to meet actual demand. Both options would leave the US without a functional nuclear industry. With closer inspection it shows how dependent the US is on Japan’s nuclear power program to keep their dying industry on life support. The US carefully hints at this in an Asahi Shimbun article from early September.

The interconnected nature of the nuclear energy industry has led the United States, Britain and France in recent days to express their concerns to government officials. Those nations are closely linked to Japan in both the construction of nuclear power plants and the recycling of nuclear fuel.”

Reactor technology, fast breeder research and fuel reprocessing have all been largely going on in Japan while the same has waned in the US. The only attempt at reprocessing via the Savannah River MOX plant has been plagued with delays and sky high costs while no US reactor will use the reprocessed fuel.

Without Japan’s nuclear power industry the nuclear export programs of Japan may also end. These programs in Vietnam, South Korea and India have assured the US that these markets would be dominated by an ally. If Japan’s nuclear industry were to shut down it would leave these export markets open to both China and Russia.

Then there is Monju. Why would the US care if Japan continued to throw money at a failed project or not? In the 1980’s and 90’s the US gave Japan a considerable body of nuclear technical information. The US fast breeder reactor programs were ending or being defunded by Congress. Monju represented another phase of this research by proxy in Japan.

An agreement started in April of 2012 by the US and Japan as the Japan-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation pact outlines cooperation between the two countries on not just proliferation and the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi. It also spells out an ongoing cooperative effort in nuclear power technology and related programs. The US bound Japan into an agreement to continue their civilian nuclear power program. In a Japanese embassy document it cites Mr. Daniel Poneman as being involved in the first meeting of the committee of this pact.

Mr. Poneman may sound familiar. He was cited in the media in July pushing for Monju to not be shut down and in September insisting Japan undo their nuclear phase out. The media reporting does not always disclose Mr. Poneman’s current job role in Japan is to assure Japan does not end their nuclear program. Mr. Poneman has made statements pushing Japan to continue the Monju reactor project.

Present for the meetings was the U.S.’s deputy secretary of energy, Daniel Poneman. He commented that the U.S. would be interested in working with Japan on the development of fast reactors, especially as they already have Monju established.”

After a meeting between the US and Japan in Tokyo Mr. Poneman made this statement:

The possibility of cooperative work with Japan in the area of fast reactors is something that is attractive to us precisely because they have Monju,

Before Mr. Poneman stuck his nose into this issue Japan was set to shut down Monju. Now it is back on Japan’s government agenda as of September 25th with the vague declaration to “achieve something significant for humanity“. The US currently has no fast breeder reactor program. The last experimental fast breeder was shut down in 1994 and funding for the Clinch River fast breeder reactor was cut off by Congress in 1983.

The Clinch River project was ended due to it not being economically viable. It was determined uranium would have to be $165 per pound for the project to begin being economically viable.  Uranium today sits at $46 per pound. The project also created a considerable proliferation risk, more than a typical nuclear power reactor. This proliferation risk is part of the reason why President Carter vetoed funding for the project in the 1970’s calling it a “technological dinosaur”. Carter came from a background in the nuclear divisions of the US Navy.

The US would be very unlikely to be able to restart a domestic fast breeder program due to the track record, costs, risks to local population and considerable proliferation risk. Yet the US insisted Japan not end Monju while also claiming that Japan’s nuclear phase out would create proliferation risks. You read that correctly and yes, it does not make any sense.

Mr. Poneman didn’t just want Monju to keep running he made these statements about Japan’s nuclear phase out.

At a meeting with the DPJ’s policy chief Tuesday, Poneman said that if Japan takes such steps it might have unexpected effects on the United States and other concerned parties, Maehara said

The new policy allows Japan to continue its fuel recycling program, despite the nuclear phase-out. The contradiction prompted U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman to raise concerns about Japan’s ability to reduce plutonium stockpiles,”

The US has also sent a former NRC official to assist TEPCO in their effort to rehabilitate their image in order to restart some of their nuclear reactors.

Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe placed blame squarely on the US for the sudden reversal of the Japanese government in a speech last week. It appears he is quite correct that the US used undue influence and this new 2012 nuclear agreement, to press Japan into keeping their nuclear programs even as the majority of people in Japan want it all to end. The Japanese people again shoulder all the risk associated with this plan.

The need by the US for Japan to keep a nuclear power program may be one more of desperation than domination. Without Japan’s nuclear power program the US program would likely fall apart.

This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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