Japan; New Government, What Happens To Nuclear Policy?

The new LDP government has declared their intent to back track the government plan to phase out nuclear power. The new government has declared nuclear power “providing a stable supply of electricity that is indispensable“. Mainichi adds the clarification that this “indispensible” electricity is for business. The large business interests in Japan have been behind the resistance to energy change in Japan. Two new ministers have been appointed, Akira Amari, minister of state economic and fiscal policy and Toshimitsu Motegi, minister of economy, trade and industry.

Abe did make some concessions on the issues surrounding the Fukushima disaster calling it unprecedented and vowing government resources to assist the decommissioning. He also stated some support for renewable energy as part of his energy policy and declared decontamination critical to recovery of the country. No real specifics were given and these “all things to all people” political statements leave one wondering what Abe’s real position is. New minister Motegi said billions of yen in government money would be dedicated to decommissioning work at Daiichi.

The power companies were obviously not happy about the nuclear phase out in Japan, as their mostly paid for assets sit idle they first took it out on customers through threats of blackouts then through rate increases. TEPCO has hung their hopes on restarting Kashiwazaki Kariwa and TEPCO’s CEO has hinted about a desire to start units at Fukushima Daiichi and Daini. This has met obvious resistance including from local governments in Fukushima. LDP enthusiasm for reactor restarts may be tempered by upper house elections in mid 2013 that could cause any political demand for restarts to be delayed. It would also cause TEPCO to miss a promised restart deadline they apparently made to 77 banks.

There is one hitch in the LDP plan to get back to business as usual and that is the NRA. While many had serious reservations about this new agency, so far they have proven to be somewhat independent but have been very slow to make complete declarations on any nuclear plant. They also still need to establish new safety rules for nuclear plants. The NRA was put in place by the Noda government without voting by the Diet. Some have worried the LDP will attempt to undo the NRA.

The NRA’s new safety standards are due by July 2013 but this may not allow enough time to restart any reactors for Japan’s peak summer power use. The head of the NRA Shunichi Tanaka recently made these statements about the NRA and the incoming government; “The basis of our judgment is scientific,” “Whatever politicians have to say on the issue, it matters to us not at all.”

The Diet announced a new panel to monitor the NRA but gave no details what they might do to pressure the agency. NRA also issued new evacuation standards this week that are higher than international standards. These new rules would allow for getting people out of harms way earlier in an accident. NRA also announced further inspections at the Oi nuclear plant may take considerable time to complete leaving the fate of this reactor up in the air though it is still being allowed to operate.

Another very major issue dogging Japan is Rokkasho and all the spent nuclear fuel piling up in Japan. The NRA recently expressed concern that the fuel reprocessing facilities at Rokkasho may be subject to extreme seismic problems. The fuel reprocessing plan put in place long before the nuclear disaster is proving even more futile in light of the last two years events. MOX fuel that Rokkasho hopes to one day create produces fuel but also leaves behind considerable waste that still has to be dealt with. When companies like TEPCO have sent fuel off to France or the UK to be reprocessed they didn’t just get MOX fuel back, they received back canisters of waste. Japan’s reprocessing plan originally hoped for success with fast breeder reactor technology but their Monju reactor has failed to accomplish this and now may be scrapped due to a seismic fault under the plant. Even if the MOX plant is ever accomplished it would still need operating reactors willing to use MOX fuel in Japan but the supply of spent fuel vs. all of Japan’s reactors could never deal with all of the waste already generated. So Japan finds itself with a mountain of spent fuel, no viable way to reuse it all and no good prospects for long term waste storage.



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