home Nuclear Attitude, U Japan proposes to replace old nuclear reactors, extend lifetimes

Japan proposes to replace old nuclear reactors, extend lifetimes

Kansai Electric Power’s Mihama plant is seen as a prime candidate for a new reactor, with two of its three existing ones slated for decommissioning. (Photo by Maho Obata)

Government tries to balance energy stability with emissions-cutting goal

Japan will study replacing old nuclear power plants with modern, safer ones, according to a draft policy document, marking a reversal of the country’s stance against new reactors since the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns.

The proposed action plan, put forward Monday by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, would also create a path for some reactors to remain in operation for more than 60 years by excluding inspection delays after the disaster.

The renewed focus on nuclear energy comes as Japan aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions while maintaining a stable supply of power. Energy market uncertainty, heightened by the war in Ukraine, has underscored the risks of depending on imported fossil fuels.

Just five of Japan’s 33 reactors will remain operational into the 2050s under current rules, which cap their life spans at 60 years.

The plan calls for “making substantive progress” toward rebuilding reactors in line with advances in such challenges as recycling spent fuel.

Energy policymakers at the ministry envision replacing decades-old reactors with safer versions of light-water reactors, like those equipped with core catchers — systems designed to keep molten fuel from escaping in a meltdown.

The plan would also create a new government command center on nuclear energy, overseeing everything from research and development to the construction and operation of new reactors. Utilities would pay into a government-backed scheme to fund the decommissioning of old reactors.

Japan’s nuclear industry has suffered from a loss of engineering talent and shrinking supply chains since the Fukushima disaster. With the new action plan, the government hopes to encourage utilities to invest in new capacity.

Some in the government see Kansai Electric Power’s Mihama nuclear plant as a potential site for a new reactor. Two of its three existing reactors are set to be decommissioned, while the third has been operating for more than 40 years. The utility, which serves the greater Osaka region, had launched a study on replacing one of them before the 2011 disaster.

Designing and building a new reactor takes around a decade and 500 billion yen to 1 trillion yen ($3.6 billion to $7.2 billion). Utilities will not move ahead unless they expect to be able to recoup the investment. But electricity market deregulation and lower prices of renewable energy have eroded what policymakers considered to be nuclear’s cost advantage.

On the engineering side, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has announced plans to develop an upgraded light-water reactor with four utilities, including Kansai Electric. Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority estimates that a year or two will be needed to set relevant safety standards once new reactors are unveiled.

The draft action plan said construction of next-generation reactors, such as small modular reactors, in situations other than replacement would be considered based on future developments.

Some observers warn that extending reactors’ operating lives could discourage utilities from building new ones. “New construction may not happen unless the government takes the lead, such as by laying out specific plans at the Mihama plant and getting utilities beyond Kansai Electric on board,” said Takeo Kikkawa, a vice president at International University of Japan.

The nuclear industry also faces a lack of progress on other challenges that have eroded public confidence. Japan has no facilities that can recycle spent nuclear fuel despite decades of effort, nor a disposal site for highly radioactive waste.

Source: Nikkei Asia