2023: A Sudden Change in Nuclear Power Policy?

By Yamaguchi Yukio (CNIC Co-Director)


Are we going to take the road to GX?

New Year greetings to all Nuke Info Tokyo readers!

Japan’s nuclear power policy is now in the process of a sudden change. While the “Declaration of a State of Nuclear Emergency” (imposed in March 2011) has not yet been lifted, the government has launched a nuclear power promotion policy under the name of GX (Green Transformation) which simply pretends that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident and other incidents never occurred. In the second GX Implementation Council at the end of August 2022, PM Kishida instructed the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to consider, by the end of the year, a nuclear power (plant) policy that would be a new rationale for energy policy based on the following four points: 1. The development and construction of next-generation advanced reactors; 2. The restart of existing reactors; 3. The extension of the operating lifetime of existing reactors; and 4. Acceleration of the process of spent-fuel reprocessing, reactor decommissioning, and final disposal of radioactive wastes. 

GX is said to be “An overhaul of the entire economic and social system by shifting from fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions to renewable energy sources such as decarbonized gas and solar and wind power.” This is supposed to transform the whole current society into a green society. For instance, greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced 43% of the 2019 level by 2030 and essentially to net zero by 2050.

Nuclear power plants (NPPs), 1. generate energy, 2. produce plutonium, 3. leave behind nuclear waste that has to be isolated from the living environment for 100,000 years. Further, they also bring about accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. The energy in 1. is electrical power. The 20th century could be said to have been the “century of electricity,” in which people became fascinated by the convenient usability of electricity, just as if electricity were some kind of “magical wonder.”


They say “the securing of safety is the fundamental premise”…

The Nuclear Energy Subcommittee of the Electricity and Gas Committee of the METI Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, which was handed PM Kishida’s instructions, consists of 20 members, three of whom are expert members, and a chairperson. Looking at the committee members, all members except for two are NPP promoters. The chairperson is a kind of “guardian deity” of the “nuclear power village.” Experts who are critical of nuclear power are very few and far between. It’s not hard to guess what kind of conclusions are arrived at by discussions in such a committee.

This Nuclear Energy Subcommittee held five meetings from September, finalizing its conclusions on December 8. What transpired in these meetings has been documented in detail in CNIC’s Bureau Chief Matsukubo Hajime’s “Participation Records.” Proposals promoting wondrous, new nuclear reactors such as innovative reactors have retreated some way off into the background, and the focus now is on utilizing existing reactors to the maximum extent possible, extending the operating lifetime of reactors/NPPs, and development and construction of next-generation innovative reactors. Matsukubo also published an article in NIT No. 211 about his participation in the Innovative Reactor Working Group.

In the committee discussions, members who are nuclear proponents were unified in emphasizing that “the securing of safety is the fundamental premise,” but it sounds strange. In the first place, who is going to adjudicate on this “safety”? According to these pro-nuclear members, it appears to be the Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA). But that is incorrect. Former Chairman Tanaka Shun-ichi of NRA clearly stated, “(NRA) examines whether facilities are in compliance with the new regulatory standards or not. We do not examine safety.” It is simply that politicians and bureaucrats have conveniently interpreted and promoted the idea that if a facility meets the compliance requirements, that means the facility is “safe”.

When talking about “safety” in NPPs, what is crucially important is that the degree of neutron irradiation embrittlement (NIE) of the reactor vessel is correctly appraised. However, it is extremely deplorable that although the formula for forecasting NIE given by the Japan Electric Association contains elementary mistakes, NRA has simply allowed this to pass and has even approved the formula. As things stand at present, it is impossible to gauge the degree of NIE of reactor vessels. In an emergency (i.e. when the reactor has to be cooled quickly), there is the fear that a severe accident may occur in which the reactor vessel is damaged due to pressurized thermal shock.

At the same time, while embrittlement may proceed even when a reactor is shut down, the recent discussions on extending the operating period of reactors do not include the reactor down time as part of the operating period, such that, if a reactor has been shut down for ten years, the lifetime of the reactor may extend to 70 years. In other words, “The operating period of a power generating nuclear reactor shall be 40 years. However, the operating period may be extended for a maximum of 20 years for one time only with the authorization of the Nuclear Regulation Agency” (i.e. up to 60 years with the extension), was the regulatory condition introduced in 2012, following the Fukushima nuclear accident. The frightening aspect of this is the NIE of the reactor. There was zero discussion on this in the Nuclear Energy Subcommittee. And yet, they sing in chorus, “the securing of safety is the fundamental premise.”


The War in Ukraine and Climate Change

In the incursion into Ukraine by Russia, which began on February 24, 2022, Ukrainian NPPs have been attacked and occupied, and NPPs have come to look like a new kind of nuclear weapon. NPPs produce plutonium, but as spent nuclear fuel is stored inside NPPs, if this material is released into the environment, then we will face the problems of Chernobyl and Fukushima all over again. NPPs that were constructed during peaceful times have now fallen into a previously unexpected situation. We now find that the NPPs dotted along Japan’s coastline cannot be defended against missile attacks.

The Kishida administration is recently aiming to expand the defense budget in an attempt to gain the capability to strike at enemy bases. This is fraught with danger. Responding to the climate crisis, it is said that NPPs should be promoted because their emissions of CO2 during power generation are small compared with coal, oil or natural gas, but NPPs are not green. The much-acclaimed SDGs contain phrases such as town planning for continual living; the protection of the abundance of the sea and land; and peace and justice, health and welfare for all people, but these are irreconcilable with NPPs.


NPP Restarts

Since the Fukushima nuclear accident, 24 nuclear reactors have been slated for decommissioning, 23 are in long-term shutdown, and only ten have been restarted. Further, only seven reactors have been found to be in compliance with the new regulatory standards: Onagawa Unit 2 (Tohoku Electric Power Company), Tokai No.2 (Japan Atomic Power Company), Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Units 6 and 7 (TEPCO), Takahama Units 1 and 2 (Kansai Electric Power Company), and Shimane Unit 2 (Chugoku Electric Power Company).

However, the problem of evacuation (at the time of a nuclear accident) is not included in the new regulatory standards. This has been left in the hands of the local municipalities. Considering the difficulties experienced at the time of the Fukushima nuclear accident, drawing up a plan to evacuate residents without exposing them to nuclear fallout is a virtually impossible task for local governments.

In the case of Tokai No.2 reactor, which is within the Tokyo capital region, the Mito District Court recognized the complaints of local residents and has not allowed the reactor to be restarted (March 2021). TEPCO, the company responsible for the Fukushima nuclear accident, has a total of seven reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station (KKNPS). Of these, Units 6 and 7 have been given a passing grade for the new regulatory standards, but this has essentially been put on hold due to an infringement of nuclear materials protection regulations.

The three verification committees and a verification supervisory committee, established by the former governor of Niigata Prefecture, where KKNPS is located, were inherited by the current Governor Hanazumi, but under the Kishida administration, promoting reactor restarts with “the full support of the government,” relations with the people of the prefecture have become discordant. In November 2022 “Explanatory and opinion exchange meetings on the three verifications” were held at four locations within the prefecture. The results were miserable. Prefectural officials gave one-sided explanations of the verification reports, and the local people who came to the meetings were limited to just one question for one minute per person.

Especially with regard to the outline of the Evacuation Committee Report, of the 456 issues in the report, only a very small number were mentioned. There was a very strong reaction from the local people, but the explanation was coercively brought to an end due to the time limit. There were no exchanges of opinions. We get a clear sense of pressure coming down from the government. The Verification Supervisory Committee (Chairperson Ikeuchi Satoru), launched amidst great fanfare, has met only twice in four years, thereby failing to realize the great hopes of the people of the prefecture.

Having seen thus far, we have very little option but to believe that it is the judgments and choices of we, each and every citizen, that are called into question here. Whether it be the “nuclear” of nuclear weapons or the “nuclear” of civilian use, the time has now come to say goodbye to any kind of nuclear.


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