Japan’s Nuclear Industry Takes A Last Ditch Defensive Position
A series of announcements this week signal major upheaval in Japan’s nuclear industry.
METI has proposed that TEPCO should start a subsidiary to hold and manage all of the company’s nuclear plants. The ministry hoped this change would facilitate restarting the reactors at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant owned by TEPCO. But how would such a business change facilitate restarting reactors? On one hand the Niigata government had suggested the move might give them motivation towards approving a restart. On the other, it would put the financing of disaster and decommissioning payments as directly dependent on the nuclear plants profits or lack there of. The government plan for TEPCO since the disaster has been to use profits from Kashiwazaki Kariwa to fund the disaster costs. They developed no “plan b”.
METI also saw this subsidiary move as boosting the profits of TEPCO’s parent company by moving the decommissioning and disaster burden to the subsidiary. METI considers this new subsidiary as having the potential to collaborate with other power companies. One METI official admitted it would likely be collaboration among other nuclear plants owned by other power companies in Japan. It was also mentioned it might make it easier to sell or merge that nuclear division of TEPCO in the future. The idea of merging nuclear power companies was also mentioned.
METI said that this change would somehow encourage public support for restarting nuclear reactors. If TEPCO can’t shoulder the costs by running their nuclear plants as this change would do, the public will shoulder all of the costs. So this change does signal a sense of desperation to cleave the ongoing debt off of TEPCO’s core business. Newer estimates out at the same time announced set annual decommissioning costs at the disaster site at over $80 million USD annually. The total costs for the disaster were estimated at over $177 billion USD. This is likely an under-estimate. As plans are solidified to deal with the disaster site, the costs are likely to significantly rise. One insider thought the total decommissioning costs could double.
TEPCO asked for rules to be changed so they would not be forced to take a single exceptionally large loss on their books from these new decommissioning costs once the true costs are more clear. This problem may play a role in why TEPCO has been less forthcoming about the true condition of the plant. Bad news would negatively influence their stock price. To TEPCO that is still a higher priority.
A day later the head of Hitachi said they are considering merging their nuclear business with Toshiba and Mitsubishi. It would make all of the nuclear power services in Japan into one huge company. This may be a sign of circling the wagons as business becomes tougher for the three companies. The three hold most of the major contracts at Fukushima Daiichi and extract a considerable amount of profit from that work. At the same time all of their maintenance and design work at other nuclear power facilities in Japan have ground to a halt. Five years has been floated as the time allowed before Japan’s nuclear industry would need to go back to business as usual or they would be in serious financial trouble. So these changes are not unexpected and may be a sign of desperation setting in.
METI also announced a plan this week for the troubled Monju fast breeder reactor. Japan’s NRA has forbidden the reactor from operating and declared the current operating company to be too incompetent to operate the facility. NRA found over 10,000 pieces of equipment that JAEA had failed to conduct inspections on. The facility was also the victim of a hacking attack in 2014. Despite all of this METI wants to allow the reactor to operate for 9 months before being decommissioned in 2020. The reactor has generated power for one hour over two brief attempts to operate the reactor since it was built in the 1980’s. This new plan to re-run Monju is bizarre to say the least. This would succeed in pushing the decommissioning years in the future. This 9 month operation plan could also open a door to continue to extend the operational window perpetually as they try to reach an operational state.
Monju isn’t alone in these security issues. TEPCO’s security contractor, Secom, was found to be participating in shady financial dealings in the Panama Papers leak. In 2015 it was discovered that 48,000 TEPCO computers were found to be running out of date unsecured versions of Windows XP.
All of these new developments do not show positive signs for the nuclear industry in Japan. Public sentiment for restarting reactors remains low, so any plans to boost the nuclear industry may not have any political support. Former PM Koizumi went as far as to state that if the next election in Japan focuses on the nuclear power issue the LDP could lose power.
These events show that the next year could be critical to the future of the nuclear industry in Japan.
Updated 10.28.2016; Added additional information and minor language edits
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