NUCLEAR POWER AFTER FUKUSHIMA: IN JAPAN AND ABROAD

NUCLEAR PLANTS AND ENERGY IN JAPAN AFTER THE FUKUSHIMA CRISIS

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of a Fukushima reactor
As of March 2012 only two out of 54 nuclear reactors in Japan were operating while those shut down for regular inspections undergo special tests to check their ability to withstand similar disasters. They could all go offline by the end of April if none are restarted before then. The Japanese government has pledged to reduce reliance on nuclear power, which supplied about 30 percent of the nation's energy needs before the disaster, but says it needs to restart some nuclear plants to meet Japan's energy needs during the transition period. [Source: AP, March 12, 2012]

As of December 2011 eight of Japan’s 54 reactors were operating, with the majority shut down for maintenance and unable to restart in the face of local opposition. In April 2012 all but one of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down.

Power companies are becoming increasingly dependent on thermal power plants. However, more than 10 cases of power generation units temporarily shutting down due to technical problems have been reported since summer.

According to a government estimate based on a scenario in which suspended nuclear reactors are not restarted, if companies and households do not take power saving measures and this summer is as hot as last year, the nation will face an average power shortage of 9.2 percent, excluding Okinawa Prefecture. This is worse than the government's estimate of a 2.7 shortfall for last summer. [Source: Takashi Itoda, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 22, 2012]

The government's basic stance on dealing with the power shortage has so far been to beef up its efforts to reduce power consumption and increase thermal power generation. However, measures focusing on saving electricity may lead to a decline in corporate investment and consumer spending. Such measures have thus provoked opposition from some in the business community who say the government is overlooking the impact on the economy.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Though the government once pledged to increase the supply of energy from nuclear power from 30 percent to 50 percent, many in Japan are pushing to reduce that figure to as close to zero as possible, said Daniel Aldrich, a Purdue University political science professor who specializes in Japan's nuclear policy. "Because of popular pressure and the refusal of local government officials," he said, "nuclear power plants that are currently offline are not likely to come back online any time soon." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2012]

Only One Nuclear Power Plant Left Operating in Japan

In late March 2012 TEPCO shut down the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Niigata Prefecture, meaning that all 17 of its nuclear reactors were suspended. TEPCO suspended operations of the 1.35 million-kilowatt No. 6 reactor at the power plant at around midnight Sunday for a regular checkup. Of the 54 commercial nuclear reactors in the nation, the No. 3 reactor of Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s Tomari nuclear power plant is the only one still operating. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 27, 2012]

"We expect that we can ensure a steady supply of electricity for the time being, but we would like to request people's cooperation in saving electricity whenever possible," TEPCO President Toshio Nishizawa said Sunday. It is the first time in about nine years that TEPCO has shut down all its reactors.The last time all TEPCO's reactors were shut down was from April to May in 2003, after a scandal over falsified safety-inspection reports.

TEPCO's 17 nuclear reactors have a combined output capacity of 17.3 million kilowatts, which accounted for one-fourth of its total electrical power supply of 65 million kilowatts as of the end of March last year.

To restart operations, nuclear power plants need to pass stress tests. TEPCO has already submitted to the government the first-phase assessment of stress tests on the No. 1 and No. 7 reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. Meanwhile, the local government is taking a cautious approach to restarting nuclear operations. "As long as the root cause of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant remains unclear, we can't judge what is safe," Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida said. From the late 1980s through the 1990s, TEPCO falsified reports relating to cracks detected at the Fukushima No. 1, No. 2 and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plants. After the false records were found in August 2002, TEPCO shut down all its reactors temporarily in 2003 to inspect its nuclear power plants.

Government Estimated Nuclear Accidents Increase the Cost of Power by 20 Percent

In October 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The cost needed to prepare for future major accidents at nuclear power plants will be 1.1 yen per kilowatt-hour, or about 20 percent of the cost of generating nuclear power under the current system, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission. Estimates released by a subcommittee of the commission set the probability of a severe accident occurring at any one of Japan's nuclear reactors at once in as much as 500 years. The likely amount of damage caused by such an accident would be 3.89 trillion yen per reactor, the estimates said.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 26, 2011]

It was the first time a government body has estimated the cost of nuclear accidents. The subcommittee also reassessed for the first time in seven years the cost of a nuclear fuel cycle that reuses reprocessed spent nuclear fuel, saying it would be twice as expensive as the cost of burying spent nuclear fuel in the ground without reusing it. The estimates will be used by the government as basic data when considering its future energy policy. The subcommittee will soon report the results to the government's panel on energy and environment policies.

For the estimates, the subcommittee referred to an estimate of a government third-party panel assessing the amount of damage caused by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The panel estimated that costs of compensation to residents of areas surrounding the power plant, decontamination, decommissioning of the power plant and other expenses caused by three severely damaged reactors at the power plant would come to about 5.5 trillion yen two years after the start of the crisis.

The subcommittee itself projected the amount of damages caused by the power plant from the third year to the fifth year. It concluded that the damages caused by an accident at a standard 1.2 million-kilowatt nuclear reactor would likely come to a total of 3.89 trillion yen. According to the subcommittee, the total operating hours of Japan's nuclear reactors to date is equivalent to more than 1,400 years. Due to the fact that the Fukushima power plant's three nuclear reactors experienced severe accidents, the subcommittee estimated such incidents would occur once in every 500 years.

Based on the assumption that a severe nuclear accident occurs once in 500 years, the cost of future nuclear accidents is estimated to be from 0.9 yen to 1.2 yen more expensive per kilowatt-hour than previously thought. If a reactor operates at 70 percent of its capacity, a standard rate, the figure is projected at 1.1 yen per kilowatt-hour. The International Atomic Energy Agency once set the allowable probability of such a nuclear accident at once in 100,000 years for a new reactor.

The cost of paying for reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel is estimated to come to 1.98 yen per kilowatt-hour, while the figure with the current method in which some spent fuel is reprocessed and the rest is stored comes to 1.39 yen per kilowatt-hour. The total cost when all spent fuel is buried underground is estimated at 1 yen to 1.02 yen per kilowatt-hour.

In its new estimates, the government subcommittee did not estimate the costs of factors other than accidents and treatment of spent nuclear fuels. But if the latest estimates are added to operational costs projected in 2004 by an Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry research commission, the cost of power generation with reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel, a method the government is aiming for, could exceed the costs needed to generate coal-fired thermal power and liquefied natural gas thermal power.

Changes After the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In a report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Japanese government has called for a drastic revision of nuclear reactor design standards, including the development of air-cooling devices and a reconsideration of the location of temporary storage pools for spent nuclear fuel rods. The report included 28 proposals to strengthen the safety of nuclear plants, drawing on lessons from this year's earthquake-triggered nuclear crisis. The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) the same day instructed electrical utility companies that operate nuclear power plants to take emergency measures to prevent hydrogen explosions and secure sufficient equipment to measure radiation levels.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 9, 2011]

“The report condemned Japan's nuclear regulators for having failed to update their safety measures, saying that both plant operators and the government should reflect on whether they have seriously made efforts to respond to new knowledge and findings sensitively and quickly to improve safety. As for measures that should be taken by power companies, the report suggested that they reconsider their assumptions on damage likely to be caused by tsunami and establish multiple back-up power sources for emergencies. The installation of watertight doors and other equipment to prevent power generators and switchboards from being submerged was also suggested.” [Ibid]

“Regarding the cooling functions of reactors and spent fuel storage pools, the report suggested that plant operators install larger and more earthquake-resistant water tanks for emergency water injection. The report also suggested that an air-cooling system be developed for use in case the injection of cooling water becomes impossible. Measures to remove hydrogen also should be enhanced so that explosions of reactor buildings, such as those that rocked the Fukushima plant, may be prevented. The report said one factor in the difficulty of responding to the accident at the Fukushima plant was that the six reactors at the plant were designed to share certain safety facilities, such as an emergency power generator. The report called for making it possible to implement completely independent responses for each reactor unit when a severe accident occurs.” [Ibid]

As for measures to be taken by the central and local governments, the report suggested NISA be separated from the industry ministry. The report called for a comprehensive review of the central government's regulatory and administrative organs, including the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission. Referring to the System for the Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, known as SPEEDI, the government said in the report that it would fully utilize the system to forecast the effects of radioactive materials and promptly disclose data obtained from the system.” [Ibid]

Japan to Cancel Plan to Build More Nuclear Plants

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Needless to say Japan’s energy and global warming policies and its reliance on nuclear power (and plans to build 14 more nuclear reactors) was put under review in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Expanding nuclear power was a key element of Japan’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent in 2020 from 1990 levels.

In May 2011, following the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that Japan would abandon plans to build more nuclear reactors, saying his country needed to “start from scratch” in creating a new energy policy. The decision means that Japan will abandon plan that the Kan government released in 2010 to build 14 nuclear reactors by 2030 and increase the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity supply to 50 percent. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 10, 2011]

The cancellation of the planned nuclear plants is the second time that Mr. Kan has suddenly announced big changes in Japanese nuclear policy without the usual endless committee meetings and media leaks that characterize the country’s consensus-driven decision-making process. Mr. Kan appears to be seeking a stronger leadership role after criticism of his government’s sometimes slow and indecisive handling of the Fukushima accident. The week before Mr. Kan asked a utility company to suspend operations at the Hamaoka nuclear plant. [Ibid]

The announcement came just days after Mr. Kan said Japan remained committed to nuclear power. At that time he told reporters that he would not seek to close any more of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors and said the Hamaoka plant was “a special case” because it sat atop a major fault line. His apparent pull- back may be driven partly by public opinion, which has significantly soured on nuclear power since the Fukushima accident. [Ibid]

Nils J. Diaz, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a consultant for companies that want to build reactors, told the New York Times he did not think the prime minister’s announcement would cause “a domino effect.” And Jonathan Hinze, vice president for international operations at the Ux Consulting Company in Roswell, Ga., which tracks the market for reactors, added that Japan’s suspension of new reactor building was less damaging than it seemed because many in the industry had doubted that Japan would have the demand to justify that much construction. [Ibid]

“Mr. Kan said Japan would retain nuclear and fossil fuels as energy sources, but vowed to add two new pillars to Japan’s energy policy: renewable energy and conservation. While Japan has been a global leader in energy conservation, it lags behind the United States and Europe in adopting solar and wind power, and other new energy sources. “We need to start from scratch,” Mr. Kan told reporters. “We need to make nuclear energy safer and do more to promote renewable energy.”The wording seemed to at least leave open the possibility that some new nuclear plants could be built in the future. [Ibid]

Ending Nuclear Power in Japan?

After the Fukushima nuclear crisis one big question was whether or not to resume operations of nuclear reactors that had finished regular checks. If they were not allowed to restart all nuclear reactors in Japan would be idle by the summer of 2012, and about 30 percent of Japan's domestic electricity output will be lost. To avoid a power supply shortage, thermal power plants are the only available option for now. According to an estimate by Japan's Institute of Energy Economics, if output from all nuclear power plants is replaced with electricity generated by thermal power plants, the total fuel procurement cost in fiscal 2012 will rise by 3.5 trillion yen from fiscal 2010.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “If all the nation's nuclear power plants were suspended and output at thermal plants was increased to make up for the lost capacity, the average household's monthly electricity bill would increase by 1,049 yen, a government-affiliated research center said. The average household's monthly bill would be 6,812 yen if all nuclear plants were halted, according to an estimate released by the Institute of Energy Economics, a research organization under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2011]

“The rise would be due to increased liquefied natural gas and coal imports needed to increase output at the nation's thermal plants. The institute did not adjust its figures according to changes in fuel prices or exchange rates. The estimates also do not take into account drastic changes in billing systems at electric utilities. The institute added that increased demand from Japan could contribute to a further rise in global fuel prices. Based on LNG prices from April, fuel costs for thermal power plants in fiscal 2012 are expected to increase 3.47 trillion yen compared to fiscal 2010. That translates to about an extra 3.7 yen per kilowatt hour for households.” [Ibid]

Japan Plans to Unlink Nuclear Agency From Government

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Responding to criticism that lax oversight played a role in the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan’s government may make its nuclear regulatory agency more independent as early as next year. The country’s minister of trade and industry, Banri Kaieda, said that the government wanted to separate the regulatory agency from his ministry, which is in charge of promoting Japan’s nuclear industry. Cozy ties between government and industry are now widely blamed for allowing the Fukushima Daiichi plant to operate despite inadequate protections against large tsunamis and insufficient backup power systems. Those vulnerabilities proved disastrous after the devastating earthquake on March 11.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 21, 2011]

Mr. Kaieda made the vague pledge of reform during a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog. At the meeting, the head of the agency Yukiya Amano, said that nuclear regulators must be “genuinely independent,” echoing a criticism that his agency has repeatedly made of Japan’s nuclear oversight in the past.

Mr. Kaieda said spinning off the regulatory body, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was one of several proposals being considered to strengthen oversight. The I.A.E.A. has criticized the Japanese agency’s lack of independence several times, most recently in a report completed last week by an investigative team that visited the stricken Fukushima plant in May. In 2007, after an earthquake in another part of Japan that also damaged a different nuclear plant, the international agency called for creating a firewall between regulators and the ministry, which guided the establishment of Japan’s nuclear industry.

Japan’s New Nuclear Agency Launched in April 2012

In August 2011, the government announced that it had compiled a draft plan to consolidate existing nuclear regulatory organizations by creating a nuclear safety agency as an extra-ministerial bureau of the Environment Ministry. The reorganization plan aims to integrate nuclear safety and regulatory functions under the new agency and attempts to ensure its independence. The government considers the insufficient independence of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry to have been a contributing factor in the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The plan is for the agency to be independent. Due to the crisis, the government has come to consider that government organizations regulating nuclear power should be clearly separated from organizations promoting nuclear power.

The outline of a new nuclear safety agency to be launched in April with the aim of overhauling the country's nuclear safety regulation was unveiled by the Environment Ministry in December 2011. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: The new agency, tentatively called the nuclear safety agency, will oversee the response of nuclear power plant operators in the event of emergencies, the ministry said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 26, 2011]

The planned agency will integrate the two existing nuclear safety-related organizations: the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA) and its watchdog organ, the Nuclear Safety Commission of the Cabinet Office. The new organization will be staffed by 485 people, up about 100 from those staffing NISA, the existing regulatory body.

Seven senior officials will become councillors or have higher posts. These will include a "safety measures coordinator" in charge of ensuring the safety of local residents at the time of a disaster, they said. The administrative arm of the agency will comprise three units: an international cooperation and technological infrastructure unit; a safety screening and inspection unit; and a crisis management administration unit, as well as a general overview department.

The screening and inspection unit will have five "safety regulation supervisors" in response to criticism that safety screening arrangements before the March 11 nuclear accident were inadequate, the officials said. The supervisors will be in charge of working out safety measures against a range of disasters, including earthquakes and tsunami, they said. In addition, an independent body, tentatively named the nuclear safety investigation commission, will be created to oversee the overall nuclear regulation system. This body will have about five staff members.

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Fukushima’s Impact on the Global Nuclear Energy Industry

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The chastening was not confined to Japan. Germany resolved to phase out nuclear power by 2022; Austria, Italy, and Switzerland also reconsidered. In the United States, which is home to a hundred and four commercial reactors, critics noted that if a problem at the Indian Point plant, thirty-five miles north of Times Square, forced an evacuation of fifty miles---the same level imposed by the U.S. in Japan---it would encompass an area of nearly twenty million people. David Lochbaum, the director of the nuclear-safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former nuclear-plant engineer, told me, “Anybody who saw the first explosion at Fukushima knew that the status quo was dead.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

On balance, the Fukushima disaster handed no easy victories to either side of the nuclear debate: defenders can no longer pretend to have engineered away the risks of generating a billion watts in a concrete building, and opponents cannot easily suggest that a meltdown will produce the huge number of immediate casualties that the public imagines. Even after Fukushima, several influential environmentalists have renewed their contention that nuclear power is an unavoidable part of weaning the planet from the burning of fossil fuels.

But, for a while, the Fukushima meltdowns have returned nuclear technology to its rightful place: a target for vigilance, scrutiny, and a healthy degree of fear. Looking back, it is easy to see where the Japanese nuclear system lost its footing: when the industry stopped seeing the risks; when decisions that affected millions of people were left up to desperate villages; when urbanites paid their electric bills without knowing where, exactly, the power came from. And yet, for all that went wrong before the meltdowns, the fundamentals of Japan’s open society served it well in the aftermath: elected officials ordered evacuations and alerted people not to drink tap water and suspended shipments of raw milk; parliament launched investigations into all that went wrong; and the Japanese press chronicled a raging national debate about the future.

Fukushima’s Impact on the U.S. Nuclear Industry

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: Although an initial inspection of U.S. reactors by the N.R.C. in May found no “imminent threat,” it concluded that at about a third of them some emergency equipment might be vulnerable to extreme circumstances, such as fires and explosions, in ways that are startlingly reminiscent of details at Fukushima. At one plant, a single, diesel-driven pump was incapable of providing emergency water to both of the reactors on site. At another, firefighting equipment is stored in a building not fortified to withstand an earthquake, because a severe fire and an earthquake “were not assumed to occur coincidentally,” according to the report. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Still, within months the American nuclear industry had regained its confidence. Its representatives endorsed some changes, including additional portable backup generators, but when an N.R.C. task force, created after Fukushima, recommended upgrading the “patchwork” of regulations that govern American plants, the Nuclear Energy Institute argued against making changes in haste. “It’s not that we’re not going to do it; let’s find out a little bit more about what happened, and then we can make the right decision and do it right once,” Adrian Heymer, the N.E.I.’s executive director for strategic programs, told me.

That debate became more urgent after August 23rd, when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, whose epicenter was in Virginia---the largest quake in the area in more than a century’shook the East Coast. It affected twenty American nuclear reactors, most seriously the North Anna plant, in Virginia, where the ground shook with greater intensity than the plant was designed to withstand---the first time that has happened at an American nuclear power station. Concrete containers of spent fuel that weighed a hundred and seventeen tons shifted a few inches. Five days later, when Hurricane Irene struck the East Coast, emergency sirens failed to function properly at three nuclear plants, and at Indian Point a canal overflowed. On September 9th, N.R.C. staff people suggested ordering power plants to review their ability to survive quakes and floods “without unnecessary delay.”

Concerns About Other Nuclear Power Plants in Japan and Abroad

Kyushu Electric Power Co. delay the restart of two nuclear reactors at the Genkai power plant in Saga Prefecture due to a lack of consent from the local community. Local people are worried about this plant because it uses dangerous plutonium-containing MOX fuel and it has populated areas downwind from the plant. The start of new Higashidori reactors in Aomori Prefecture were also delayed.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in Niigata Prefecture experienced some fires and other problems after the 2007 earthquake in Niigata but didn’t release much radiation. Ironically Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Toshiba Corp. planned to conduct Japan’s first earthquake safety test on a nuclear power station by the end of March, a few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, to verify the effectiveness of the reactor's shutdown functions in the event of a major quake, according to TEPCO. In the test---which never occurred---control rods and other parts used to stop nuclear fission in emergencies at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa power were to be subjected to tremors 1.5 times stronger than those seen in the 2007 quake.

International Concerns About Nuclear Power

The Fukushima disaster damped the nuclear industry’s hopes for a worldwide revival of reactor building. With demand for electricity and concerns about global warming both growing, the industry had projected rapid expansion, but Japan’s nuclear crisis had already caused several countries to become skittish about nuclear power.

After the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant there large protest against nuclear energy in places where nuclear power plants are scheduled to be built in India, Taiwan and other places. Italy proposed halting its plan to develop nuclear power. Germany, for instance, declared a temporary moratorium on building new plants.

Still, several experts and nuclear industry representatives said that they expected demand in two important markets---China and India---to remain strong even though those counties had said they would proceed more cautiously. Both nations have rapidly growing demand for electricity, and neither has nearly enough domestic fuel to meet its needs.

A downturn in reactor construction would hurt Japanese companies that export nuclear plant designs and components, including Toshiba, which owns Westinghouse, and Hitachi, which is in a worldwide partnership with General Electric. Companies in France and South Korea also have a big stake in reactor building.

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Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Plant

Hamaoka Nuclear Plant

After the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant of demonstrators turned out in the central Japanese city of Nagoya, gathering outside the offices of regional energy company Chubu Electric Power shouting "We don't want another Fukushima." They were protesting the presence of Chubu Electric Power's Hamaoka plant. the Omaezaki, Pacific coast of Shizuoka prefecture,

Located 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Nagoya and about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of Tokyo, the Hamaoka plant has been described as the most dangerous nuclear power plant in Japan. Environmentalists have long warned of the risked posed by the facility, which sits atop a subduction zone near the junction of two plates in an area feared to be overdue a major quake. On top of that its vulnerable to Pacific tsunamis.

After the government revised earthquake damage prevention standards for nuclear power plants in 2006, important pipes and electric cable fittings were reinforced, and exhaust structures in the reactors were strengthened and Chubu Electric decided to decommission the two reactors because making them sufficiently earthquake-resistant would cost about $3.5 billion. In their place, the utility planned to build a sixth reactor. At the time, the government praised Chubu Electric's efforts and approved the plant for continued operations. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 8, 2011]

In the wake of the accident at the Fukushima plant, An emergency generator was set up on higher ground, and additional power cables and makeshift pumps to cool the reactors were installed. Heavy machinery was brought to the plant to remove debris that could obstruct repairs in an emergency. The primary antitsunami measures is a 15-meter-high seawall, which is almost double the height of the maximum tsunami predicted in a Tokai earthquake, and would likely protect the plant from a tsunami similar to the one that hit the Fukushima plant. The wall is scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal 2013 and lies the plant and some 10- to 15-meter-high sand dunes. [Ibid]

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Fukushima in better days

Closing of the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant

In May 2011, the Kan government asked Chubu Electric Power to suspend all four nuclear reactors at the Hamaoka plant because of worried about earthquakes predicted in the region. At first there was some resistance to carry out the order by executives at Chubu Electric but after three days of delays Chub agreed to shut down the plant and moves were made to put it into “cold storage.”

Chubu Electric lost more than 10 percent of its power supply capacity with the shutdown of the 3.6 million-kilowatt Hamaoka plant, its only atomic plant. The utility company supplies power to central Japan, including Aichi Prefecture, the home of Toyota. The company said it will reboot its suspended thermal power station to meet the summer peak demand and ask its users to save electricity.

After strengthening the plant’s defenses against earthquakes and tsunamis, a process that could take a couple of years, the utility is expected to restart the plant. Chubu Electric Power Co., according to a report by Kyodo, said it hopes to resume the plant in Shizuoka Prefecture soon after taking measures to block quake-triggered tsunami waves but Shizuoka Gov. Heita Kawakatsu remains cautious about the idea. The government said the suspension will last for two to three years.

The Kan government decided to shut down the Hamaoka nuclear power station because it measures against damage from a giant earthquake and tsunami were deemed insufficient against a predicted Tokai earthquake, which occurs in the region near the nuclear plant every 100 to 150 years. Scientists had estimated that there was a nearly 90 percent chance that a magnitude 8.0 earthquake will hit this area within the next 30 years. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 8, 2011]

Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “The decision to suspend Hamaoka has immediately raised doubts about whether other plants should be allowed to continue operating. The government based its request on the prediction that there is a nearly 90 percent chance that a magnitude 8.0 earthquake will hit this area within the next 30 years. But critics have said that such predictions may even underestimate the case, pointing to the case of Fukushima Daiichi, where the risk of a similar quake occurring had been considered nearly zero.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 16, 2011]

“This is ridiculous,” Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Research Reactor Institute at Kyoto University told the New York Times. “If anything, Fukushima shows us how unforeseen disasters keep happening. There are still too many things about earthquakes that we don’t understand.” Until March 11, Mr. Koide had been relegated to the fringes as someone whose ideas were considered just too out of step with the mainstream. Today, he has become an accepted voice of conscience in a nation re-examining its nuclear program.

Alternatives to TEPCO and Nuclear Power

Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times: In a direct act of rebellion against Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, the local government in Tokyo is moving swiftly to build a huge natural gas facility that would generate as much electricity as a nuclear reactor. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, November 17, 2011]

The plant would ensure a stable supply of electricity for the capital in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdowns in March at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But more important, the city government says, it could spur desperately needed change in Japan. By weakening Tokyo Electric, or TEPCO, reformers hope to finally break the linchpin of the collusion between business and government that once drove Japan’s rapid postwar rise, but that now keeps it mired in stagnation.

“Now’s our chance,” said Naoki Inose, Tokyo’s vice governor, invoking an ancient proverb about attacking a wild dog only after it has fallen into a river: “On March 11, TEPCO became the dog that fell into the river. Only then can you fight against such a formidable foe.”

TEPCO’s Power and Japan’s Failure to Deregulate Its Utilities

Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times: It is difficult to overstate the influence of TEPCO, which rivals the American defense industry in its domestic reach. Thanks to a virtual monopoly and a murky electricity pricing system, it has become one of the biggest sources of loosely regulated cash for politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, who have repaid TEPCO with unquestioning support and with the type of lax oversight that contributed to the nuclear crisis. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, November 17, 2011]

Government policies are at the heart of TEPCO’s power. Japan, almost alone among industrialized nations, has not deregulated its energy grid, so utilities have a stranglehold on both the generation and the transmission of electricity. What is more, power companies are allowed to set electricity rates according to a complex system that includes a vast range of often unclear expenses. The more a utility spends, the more it can charge.

The policy, which was meant to further a national strategy of developing nuclear power, had the predictable effect of encouraging TEPCO to overspend, according to a 230-page report released last month by a government panel investigating TEPCO’s management. The panel found that TEPCO---whose net income was $1.7 billion in 2009 and whose 192 plants powered a third of Japan---had a vast network of related companies to which it doled out inflated contracts. Some of those companies, in turn, arranged deals with large manufacturers, allowing them a share of the wealth. “It’s an incredible system,” said Kaichiro Shimura, the author of “The TEPCO Empire” and a former newspaper reporter who covered TEPCO. “The only losers are the consumers.”

Japanese, in fact, pay on average double what Americans do for electricity. Perhaps worse, critics say, TEPCO became Japan’s biggest “cash box.” Besides paying inflated costs to other members of Keidanren that provided it with equipment or services, the company donated copious amounts to political fund-raisers, made generous donations for academic research and bought advertisements in the news media, even though it had no real competitors. TEPCO also offered lucrative postretirement jobs to bureaucrats from government ministries and the national police.

In return, few challenged TEPCO’s practices, even as it became the main player in Japan’s nuclear establishment, known as the “nuclear power village.” “TEPCO lies at the center of collusion,” said Takeshi Sasaki, the former president of the University of Tokyo. “You can’t reform the nuclear power village without first fixing TEPCO.”

Efforts to Deregulate Japan’s Utilities

Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times: At the hear of Japan’s effort to deregulate its utilities is separating power generation and transmission, which would automatically create more companies and competition. A previous failed attempt at change is often cited as evidence of the control wielded by TEPCO and its allies. In the mid-1990s, after most industrialized nations split the two halves of the business, a small group inside the Economy Ministry tried to do the same. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, November 17, 2011]

TEPCO and the other utilities pushed back fiercely. They reached out to the then-governing Liberal Democratic Party, said Taro Kono, a lawmaker in the party and one of its few critics of nuclear power. TEPCO and Keidanren handpicked a former TEPCO vice president, Tokio Kano, for one of the legislative seats the party reserves for Keidanren (Japans’ main business organization), and he helped quash the ministry renegades.

On paper, much of Japan’s power industry has been deregulated in the past decade. The emptiness of that deregulation, which has become increasingly evident since the Fukushima disaster, underscores the difficulties faced by current challengers. The history makes clear that though the protection of TEPCO and the industry began under the long-serving Liberal Democrats, it has continued under the Democratic Party of Japan, which grabbed power in 2009 with promises to untangle the ties between business and government.

In one effort to break the utilities’ virtual monopolies, 60 percent of Japan’s electricity market was opened up by 2005 to so-called power producers and suppliers, companies that act as brokers, buying electricity (mostly from manufacturers that generate their own) and selling it to commercial customers. A market, the Japan Electric Power Exchange, or JEPX, was established to allow wholesale trading. But despite offering rates that are often a third cheaper than utilities’, the companies, which must depend on utilities’ transmission lines, have captured only 2 percent of the market. Reluctant to lose customers to the new companies, the utilities make it difficult for them to access their transmission networks.

Under another past attempt at deregulation, the other utilities were allowed to compete against TEPCO and one another. But they demurred, preferring to keep their monopolies intact. And since the Fukushima disaster, the other utilities have rallied strongly behind TEPCO, clearly afraid that its breakup would mean the same for them. Those with nuclear plants even agreed to contribute $90 million to TEPCO’s bailout, one of the clearest indications yet that the web of influence the company wove over the years remains intact.

Nuclear Power Policy Under the Noda Administration

While pushing for the restart of reactors that have passed safety checks, Noda has pledged to gradually reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power. Japan is debating renewable energy targets of between 25 percent to 35 percent of total power generation by 2030, looking to Germany, which raised the proportion of renewables from 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent by 2010. [Ibid]

Image Sources: TEPCO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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