Japan is number three in the world in nuclear power in terms of number of plants and generating capacity behind the United States and France. It gets 36.8 percent of it electricity and 10 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors. With no substantial reserves of oil or coal, Japan relies on nuclear power for the energy needed to drive its economic machine. The Japan Atomic Power Co. first started commercial operation of a 166,000-kilowatt plant in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture in 1966. In 1970s, Japan was brought to its knees by the oil crisis, the New York Times reported, Japan committed fully to nuclear power to achieve greater energy independence, a path from which it never strayed despite growing doubts in the United States and Europe.

Before the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011 Japan had 54 reactors at 18 plants. Fourteen new plants were planned or being built. Of the 52 reactors in 2003, 23 were pressurized water reactors and 29 were boiling water reactors. Japan 54 reactors have a total generating capacity of about 49,110 megawatts. Nuclear energy has generated on average about 30 percent of all electricity in Japan since nuclear power usage peaked at 36.8 percent in fiscal 1998.

According to an energy plan approved in June 2010 the number of nuclear reactors was to be increased to at least 14 to 68 by 2030. The plan also proposed raising the percentage of nuclear power used in total electricity generation from 26 percent to at least 50 percent. By increasing the supply of nuclear power, which does not require fossil fuel and other conventional energy resources, the government intended to raise the percentage of so-called self-sufficient energy from under 40 percent to 70 percent and cut greenhouse gas production. In teh wake of the Fukushima crisis this plan is being reviewed and is likely to be scrapped (See the End of the Article).

The current cost to generate nuclear power is 5 yen to 6 yen per kilowatt-hour while thermal power costs 7 yen to 8 yen per kilowatt-hour. Renewable energy costs much more to generate than nuclear power. Generating one kilowatt-hour using solar power costs 49 yen; wind power 9 yen to 14 yen.

In an April 2011 Yomiuri Shimbun survey, after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, 46 percent of the people asked said the present number of nuclear power plants should be maintained, 29 percent said they should be decreased and 12 percent said nuclear power should be abandoned altogether. Only 10 percent said the number of nuclear power plants should be increased.

Many of Japan's nuclear power plants are grouped together in clusters of three or four. The 15 nuclear reactors around western Honshu's Wakasa Bay is the largest concentration of nuclear power plants in the world.

Good Websites and Sources: Japan’s Nuclear Power Program ; World Nuclear Association on Japan ; Nuclear Plants and Earthquakes ; Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center ; Nuclear Safety Commission ; Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency ; Atomic Energy Society of Japan ; Japan’s MOX Program ; Greenpeace on MOX ;Toshiba Nuclear Energy ; Energy Industry Sites: Oil and Gas Industry in Japan ; Federation of Electric Power Companies ; Japan Petrochemical Industry Association ; Tokyo Electric Power Co, TEPCO ;


Nuclear power plants in Japan

History of Nuclear Energy in Japan

Japan's first nuclear power plant, the now-defunct Tokai power station of Japan Atomic Power Co., began generating power in 1965 and shifted to commercial operation in 1966, marking the start of commercial nuclear energy in the nation.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “After the Japanese surrender, in 1945, General Tomoyuki Yamashita was asked why his country had lost the war. He answered, ‘Science.’ The triumph of American weaponry had convinced a generation of Japanese élites that their country must reëngage the world on the basis of trade and technology. But Japan’s islands were chronically short of coal and oil — the war had been partly a hunt for energy — and, as the country embarked on its economic growth spurt, it was desperate for new sources of electricity. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Nobody in Japanese politics was more inspired by nuclear power than Yasuhiro Nakasone, a fiery young nationalist who later became Prime Minister. As a sailor, he had witnessed from a distance the detonation over Hiroshima. “I still remember the image of the white cloud,” he wrote in “Politics and Life,” a 1992 memoir. “That moment motivated me to think and act toward advancing the peaceful use of nuclear power.” Nakasone believed that if Japan did not participate in “the largest discovery of the twentieth century” then it would “forever be a fourth-rate nation.” He also believed that the initiative must “proceed secretly,” because “opposition from academia and the press would blow us out of the water.”

To help persuade the Japanese public, the Americans enlisted the services of the C.I.A. Its agents turned to Matsutaro Shoriki, who ran the popular daily Yomiuri and was a proponent of nuclear energy. Shoriki, later known as the father of Japanese baseball, was code-named Podam, and, according to declassified files at the U.S. National Archives, he agreed to use his position to advance the cause. His newspaper co-sponsored an exhibition on nuclear power and ran a cheery series of articles that began with the headline “FINALLY, THE SUN HAS BEEN CAPTURED.” By 1964, Japan had established Nuclear Power Day, to be celebrated every October. And three years later a leader of the ruling party said that it was time for the Japanese people to “outgrow the “nuclear allergy.” “Secretly, the Prime Minister also commissioned a study on whether Japan should develop nuclear weapons of its own. (The study found “no technical impediments” to nuclear weapons but concluded that weapons would be costly and overly alarming to the public and to neighboring countries.)

The government made it clear to economically struggling villages in the countryside that a nuclear power plant held the promise of a fortune in property taxes and subsidies. “We were told that it would make us the Tokyo of Fukushima,” Kazuyoshi Satoh, a civil servant from the little town of Naraha, recalled. “Every time I went back, there was a new façade on the city hall or a new gymnasium or a new community center.” In one town, a plant even came with a subsidy for diapers. Satoh eventually became an opponent of the nuclear industry, which put him at odds with some neighbors. “Critics of nuclear power were seen as heretics,” he said.

Why Did Japan’s Embrace of Nuclear Power Despite the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings

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water leakage at another plant
On why Japan so embraced nuclear power despite suffering the utter horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, John Allemang, writing in the Globe and Mail, first pointed out that “Japan’s 55 reactors produce nearly 30 percent of the country’s electricity, and the long-term strategy before the Fukushima disaster was to push that figure to 50 percent by 2030.” He then said, “Security is a complicated idea in Japan. Its political security has been tied to the United States since the end of the Second World War, a client-state relationship that undermines feelings of national pride. So any areas where independence can be expressed become more attractive, whether it’s protecting rice farmers from cheap imports or developing a domestic energy network that stabilizes the Japanese economy and frees it from the unpredictability of the Arab world.”

“The Japanese talk about security in terms of cultural sensibility,” says Ian Condry of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s as much an idea of sovereignty as it is of protection. So there’s an effort to balance the fear of nuclear power with the desire to be independent of foreign oil suppliers. To allay the fears, Japanese advocates of nuclear power have gone out of their way to stress its virtues: It’s safe (because it’s in the control of punctilious engineers), clean (in a country that prizes purity) and proudly Japanese.” TEPCO “features a plucky little cartoon mascot on its website who promotes the “safety and necessity” of atomic energy.”

“The spectre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunts nuclear energy’s doubters, and the survivors of the bombings — known as hibakusha — have been prominent in campaigns against nuclear expansion. And yet their influence is more limited than non-Japanese might think. Information about the bombings was suppressed during the years of the American occupation of Japan (1945-52), and survivors of the blasts — sickly, disfigured and impoverished — often found themselves shunned by the rest of Japanese society.”

Japan’s Nuclear Program After Chernobyl

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: After Chernobyl, many countries suspended plans to expand nuclear power, but Japan did not. Within two years, it had begun construction on five more plants. Although public opinion soured, the industry responded with a major investment in the visitors’ centers attached to its plants, adding swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, gardens, and IMAX theatres. One plant in Fukushima decorated itself with replicas of the homes of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. Where the centers once targeted men interested in science, they now focussed on attracting women and children, according to Noriya Sumihara, a cultural anthropologist at Tenri University, who studied the phenomenon. “The companies believed that mothers were key decision-makers in the family,” he said. “If women felt the plants were relatively safe, then men would, too.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Not far from Tokyo, the Tokaimura nuclear power plant maintains a complex called Atom World, which has two floors of games and interactive exhibits. When I visited recently, kids were being greeted by a young woman in a red apron printed with the image of a smiling uranium atom. There was a cluster of children playing a ring-toss game that had targets for different points along the nuclear-fuel cycle: radioactive waste for one ring, plutonium for another. Exhibits were narrated by cartoon characters, such as Uranium Boy and Little Pluto Boy, short for plutonium, who dispensed advice. “No need to worry too much!” he said on a poster about food with legal traces of radiation. When Japan was debating the use of a plutonium-fuelled reactor, in 1993, visitor centers added a video of Little Pluto Boy helping a child drink liquid plutonium, assuring him, “It’s unthinkable that I could cause any effects on the human body!” The video is no longer used. (It’s still available on YouTube.)

The visitors’ center at Tokaimura showed a short film that described uranium as “a gift from God” and “the fire of hope in the twenty-first century.” It did not mention the most famous event that had occurred in the town: the day, in September, 1999, when undertrained plant workers mishandled enriched uranium, causing Japan’s worst nuclear accident before Fukushima. Two of the workers died of organ failure brought about by acute radiation sickness, and more than four hundred people were exposed. Six power-company employees were prosecuted for professional negligence and violating nuclear-safety laws. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

After Chernobyl, Japan’s declarations about the safety of its plants only seemed to grow more emphatic. Sumihara, who has interviewed power-company employees, said, “They’d say, “The structure of Chernobyl was totally different, and in Japan there are five layers of fail-safe measures. The Japanese standards for safety are a leader in the world.” “They came to regard even reasonable questions about safety as an existential threat. “They felt that if they said it was even slightly less than a hundred-per-cent safe, then that would introduce anxiety.”

The myth of total safety went beyond public relations and degraded the industry’s technical competence. According to Taro Kono, a legislator in the Liberal Democratic Party, emergency drills in the plants were scheduled to fit within an eight-hour workday, rather than simulating realistic conditions. A 2002 report by Tokyo Electric and five other companies declared, “There is no need to take a hydrogen explosion into consideration,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. (After the third hydrogen explosion at Fukushima, a company official conceded to the paper that “we were overly confident.”) Government regulators adopted a similar posture. A 1990 set of Nuclear Safety Commission guidelines announced, “We do not need to take into account the danger of a long-term power severance.” Even basic precautions were declared obsolete: Japan once developed a set of radiation-resistant robots to use in the event of a nuclear accident; in 2006, all but two of them were donated to a university and a museum. After the Fukushima meltdowns, Japan had to depend on devices from iRobot, an American manufacturer best known for producing the Roomba vacuum cleaner. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Using Nuclear Energy to Combat Global Warming

Before the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 Japan had been looking more and more to nuclear energy as a “clean” energy source to help it cut greenhouse house gases and to wean itself off fossils with China more and more becoming a major competitor for oil and gas supplies. A plan reveled in 2010 stated that Japan’s long term energy policy would revolve around nuclear energy and called for building at least 14 new nuclear power plants by 2030.

Given the present-day difficulties involved in ensuring the reliability and large-scale supply of new energy, nuclear energy cannot help but have an important role as a type of energy that does not produce carbon dioxide. Nuclear power is a key source of energy for Japan, a country with few natural underground resources, since the technology enables the country to produce electricity domestically. This was the stance of the Japanese government as it took measures to improve self sufficiency and diversify the types of energy and supply sources in order to bolster energy safety and security. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“Nuclear power was promoted as a way of reducing reliance on oil, and the Japanese government worked to assure the safety of atomic energy. However, the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami in March 2011 caused an accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Dai-ichi (Number 1) Nuclear Power Plant. Several explosions thought to be hydrogen explosions occurred, damaging the plant facility, resulting in a leak of radioactive substances into the atmosphere and an accumulation and leak of contaminated water.

“The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, as well as the stoppage at the thermal power stations, decimated the power supply to east Japan in one stroke. These events once again brought to the fore the issues of the vulnerability of the domestic energy supply system against natural disasters and the safety of atomic power. The government set out to reconsider its Basic Energy Plan to create a more robust energy supply and demand structure. Five months after the disaster in August 2011, a law was passed to promote the introduction of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geo-thermal energy.

Nuclear Waste in Japan

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waste storage cask
All of Japan’s operating nuclear reactors are light water reactors whose fuel is natural uranium that has been enriched to increase the amount of uranium 235 from 3 percent to five percent. Burning nuclear fuel in light-water reactors produces plutonium. As of 2009 Japan produces about 1,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, including uranium and plutonium, a year. The amount of plutonium possessed by Japan both at home and abroad is 31.8 tons.

As of the end of 2004, Japan had a stockpile of 43.1 tons of plutonium, up 2.3 tons from 2003, and 110 tons of unprocessed nuclear fuel rods, containing plutonium. Of the 43.1 tons of plutonium, 5.7 tons are kept in Japan and 37.4 tons are kept in Britain and France; 29.3 tons are fissionable.

Japan has a stockpile of 30 tons of plutonium on its soil. Most of it is fissile plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods that accumulates at a rate of about a half a ton a year. Of the 30 tons, 14 tons is from France and 11.4 tons is from Britain. The two countries have sent their plutonium to Japan to be recycled. Japan has been sharply criticized for accepting plutonium transported on ship from other countries.

Construction of the Rokkashomura plant was started in 1993. It was supposed to be finished in 1997 but construction has been delayed a dozen and half times and the plant on now is supposed to be completed in 2012. Construction costs have exceeded $2.5 billion. In the mean time spent fuel rods pile up.

MOX Nuclear Fuel Japan

Japan has no uranium but is does have a lot of used energy fuel rods that could be recycled into usable nuclear fuel. To reduce costs plutonium from spent fuel rods is mixed with uranium to produce uranium plutonium oxide (MOX), which can be efficiently used to power nuclear plants. Japanese scientists are also trying to make plutonium that is useless in weapons.

MOX is produced at $20 billion complex in Rokkashomura in Aomori in northern Honshu. In the facility plutonium and uranium are salvaged from spent fuel rods; the uranium is enriched in centrifuges; and the plutonium and uranium are “reprocessed” into MOX. MOX can be burned in some modern reactors with pluthermal, or plutonium-thermal capabilities. One such plant in Ehime in Shikoku plans to use one quarter MOX and three quarters regular enriched uranium. Because plutonium is involved there are serious environmental and safety concerns about the technology.

The MOX nuclear fuel recycling plant in Rokkashomura went into operation in March 2006 and officially opened in the summer of 2008. It can reprocess 800 tons of MOX fuel from about 10,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually and is run by a company called Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.

Reprocessing cost more than burning spent fuel but it provides Japan with an energy source . Residents around the MOX facility are worried because the radiation released to the air and sea is as much 180 times higher than the radiation released by a conventional nuclear plant. The government insists that even though this true, radiation leaks are still within safe limits.

MOX fuel produced in France was delivered to three nuclear power facilities in Japan in May and June 2009. Ths ships were given armed escorts and greeted by anti-nuclear protesters. Afterwards Japanese power companies said they wouldn’t start using the fuel until 2014.

MOX fuel was loaded at the Genkai Nuclear reactor in Saga Prefecture, a key step in Japan’s preparation to produce electricity from plutonium thermal power generation It is believed it will take some time to get the system online due to delays, protest, court actions and aspects of the technology that have not been completely worked out yet.

Japan’s second pluthermal MOX-fuel reactor — which uses plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel went into operation in 2010 in Ikatacho, Ehime Prefecture. A third one, a refurbished reactor in Fukishima, received its first MOX shipment in August 2010.

Breeder Reactors Japan

Japan and France are the only two countries in the world developing controversial fast-breeder nuclear technology, which produces more plutonium than it consumes. Touted as a "dream energy," the technology has problems that have not been resolved and is not expected to be widely used in reactors until 2050. Other countries consider the possibility of sodium and plutonium leaks to be to risky. Japan started research on fast breeder reactors in 1968. It is also doing research in nuclear fusion.

The basic layout of a fast breeder reactor is there is a core which contains fissionable material like Pu-239 (Plutonium) or U-235. Surrounding this core is non-fertile material, or non-fissionable material, such as U-238. Neutrons produced from the fissions in the core bombard the blanket and create new fissionable material. After reprocessing the blanket the new fissionable material can be used possibly in the core or in another core at another plant. The core is cooled using liquid sodium which can be maintained at low pressure and low temperature which adds to the safety of the reactor. The liquid metal is used as a coolant because the neutrons coming from the core do not need to be moderated, therefore water or hard water cannot be used. Moderation of neutrons would decrease the amount of breeding occurring and would inhibit the purpose of the reactor (fewer neutrons bombarding the blanket means less breeding). [Source: Devon Dodd, Student of Professional Chemistry with a focus in Nuclear Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University]

There are two basic designs for these types of reactors, although some changes are being researched for future use. The criticality or the degree of operation (0 to 100 percent) is controlled by the control rods at the top of the reactor. If the reactor needs to be shut down or the computer at the facility deems it necessary then these will be dumped into the core to absorb all neutrons being produced from fissions and this will halt the reactor (0 percent). Of course this whole unit is incased in a solid and safe building which prevents any radiation from escaping while the reactor is working and in case of an emergency.

Japan has plans to build breeder reactors and reprocessing plant that could produce fuel for thousands of nuclear weapons. Analysts aren't worried so much about Japan's nuclear capabilities as they are about such large amount of plutonium falling into the hands of terrorists or a hostile country. When North Korea was asked to close down its nuclear reprocessing plant it said, "Japan is allowed to do it why can't we." Japanese companies are involved in building a fast breeder nuclear power plant in China outside Beijing.

Websites Wikipedia Wikipedia. This is good for basic understanding of what a fast breeder reactor is. . This a website goes into great detail on how these reactors work, what reactors are operating currently, and what reactors are planned for in the future.

Monju Reactor

A sodium leak at the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, in 1995 forced suspension of the nuclear fuel cycle program for a decade. The accident was not serious but the way the accident was handled drew severe criticism (See Below) and shifted the emphasis to MOX systems. The Monju prototype fast breeder reactor went online in August 2009 after being shut down by a sodium coolant leak in 1995.

In May 2010 a the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, resumed operations for the first time in 14½ years. Operations were suspended since 1995 after a sodium coolant leak and subsequent fire. There was some question about whether the facility and the technicians that ran it were up to the job after operation had been suspended for such a long time.

In August 2010 a 3.3-ton fuel exchange devise was accidently dropped into the prototype reactor, delaying the test run for the rector by six months to a year . Full-fledged operation of the 280,000-kilowatt reactor is now not supposed to take place until 2014.

The Monju reactor produces more plutonium than it consumes and has a power output capacity of 280,000 kilowatts. The biggest technical problem is handling sodium which is used as a coolant to remove heat from he reactor’s core.

Japan hopes to commercially develop breeder reactors by 2050. Monju is the first prototype reactor and is the first of its kind to generate power.

Image Sources: Japan Nuclear Power Program, TEPCO, Greenpeace

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

Last updated August 2012

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