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Six Years After Fukushima, Much of Japan Has Lost Faith in Nuclear Power

IAEA experts at Fukushima, 17th of April, 2013. (Photo: IAEA)

The Japanese government should consider a fundamental change in its current nuclear energy policy if it wants to recover the public’s trust in nuclear power, writes Tatsujiro Suzuki, Director of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University. According to Suzuki, staying on the current path will undermine Japan’s economic and political security. Courtesy of The Conversation.

Six years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, but Japan is still dealing with its impacts. Decommissioning the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant poses unprecedented technical challenges. More than 100,000 people were evacuated but only about 13 percent have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to some evacuation zones.

In late 2016 the government estimated total costs from the nuclear accident at about 22 trillion yen, or about US$188 billion – approximately twice as high as its previous estimate. The government is developing a plan under which consumers and citizens will bear some of those costs through higher electric rates, taxes or both.

The Japanese public has lost faith in nuclear safety regulation, and a majority favors phasing out nuclear power. However, Japan’s current energy policy assumes nuclear power will play a role. To move forward, Japan needs to find a new way of making decisions about its energy future.

Uncertainty over nuclear power

When the earthquake and tsunami struck in 2011, Japan had 54 operating nuclear reactors which produced about one-third of its electricity supply. After the meltdowns at Fukushima, Japanese utilities shut down their 50 intact reactors one by one. In 2012 then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government announced that it would try to phase out all nuclear power by 2040, after existing plants reached the end of their 40-year licensed operating lives.

Now, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office at the end of 2012, says that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power. Three reactors have started back up under new standards issued by Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was created in 2012 to regulate nuclear safety. One was shut down again due to legal challenges by citizens groups. Another 21 restart applications are under review.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

In April 2014 the government released its first post-Fukushima strategic energy plan, which called for keeping some nuclear plants as baseload power sources – stations that run consistently around the clock. The plan did not rule out building new nuclear plants. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which is responsible for national energy policy, published a long-term plan in 2015 which suggested that nuclear power should produce 20 to 22 percent of Japan’s electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to strong energy conservation efforts and increased energy efficiency, total electricity demand has been falling since 2011. There has been no power shortage even without nuclear power plants. The price of electricity rose by more than 20 percent in 2012 and 2013, but then stabilized and even declined slightly as consumers reduced fossil fuel use.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Japan’s Basic Energy Law requires the government to release a strategic energy plan every three years, so debate over the new plan is expected to start sometime this year.

Public mistrust

The most serious challenge that policymakers and the nuclear industry face in Japan is a loss of public trust, which remains low six years after the meltdowns. In a 2015 poll by the pro-nuclear Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization, 47.9 percent of respondents said that nuclear energy should be abolished gradually and 14.8 percent said that it should be abolished immediately. Only 10.1 percent said that the use of nuclear energy should be maintained, and a mere 1.7 percent said that it should be increased.

Another survey by the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in 2016 was even more negative. Fifty-seven percent of the public opposed restarting existing nuclear power plants even if they satisfied new regulatory standards, and 73 percent supported a phaseout of nuclear power, with 14 percent advocating an immediate shutdown of all nuclear plants.

Who should pay to clean up Fukushima?

METI’s 22 trillion yen estimate for total damages from the Fukushima meltdowns is equivalent to about one-fifth of Japan’s annual general accounting budget. About 40 percent of this sum will cover decommissioning the crippled nuclear reactors. Compensation expenses account for another 40 percent, and the remainder will pay for decontaminating affected areas for residents.

Under a special financing scheme enacted after the Fukushima disaster, Tepco, the utility responsible for the accident, is expected to pay cleanup costs, aided by favorable government-backed financing. However, with cost estimates rising, the government has proposed to have Tepco bear roughly 70 percent of the cost, with other electricity companies contributing about 20 percent and the government – that is, taxpayers – paying about 10 percent.

This decision has generated criticism both from experts and consumers. In a December 2016 poll by the business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, one-third of respondents (the largest group) said that Tepco should bear all costs and no additional charges should be added to electricity rates. Without greater transparency and accountability, the government will have trouble convincing the public to share in cleanup costs.

Other nuclear burdens: Spent fuel and separated plutonium

Japanese nuclear operators and governments also must find safe and secure ways to manage growing stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel and weapon-usable separated plutonium.

At the end of 2016 Japan had 14,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants, filling about 70 percent of its onsite storage capacity. Government policy calls for reprocessing spent fuel to recover its plutonium and uranium content. But the fuel storage pool at Rokkasho, Japan’s only commercial reprocessing plant, is nearly full, and a planned interim storage facility at Mutsu has not started up yet.

The best option would be to move spent fuel to dry cask storage, which withstood the earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Dry cask storage is widely used in many countries, but Japan currently has it at only a few nuclear sites. In my view, increasing this capacity and finding a candidate site for final disposal of spent fuel are urgent priorities.

Japan also has nearly 48 tons of separated plutonium, of which 10.8 tons are stored in Japan and 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 120 crude nuclear weapons.

Many countries have expressed concerns about Japan’s plans to store plutonium and use it in nuclear fuel. Some, such as China, worry that Japan could use the material to quickly produce nuclear weapons.

Now, when Japan has only two reactors operating and its future nuclear capacity is uncertain, there is less rationale than ever to continue separating plutonium. Maintaining this policy could increase security concerns and regional tensions, and might spur a “plutonium race” in the region.

As a close observer of Japanese nuclear policy decisions from both inside and outside of the government, I know that change in this sector does not happen quickly. But in my view, the Abe government should consider fundamental shifts in nuclear energy policy to recover public trust. Staying on the current path may undermine Japan’s economic and political security. The top priority should be to initiate a national debate and a comprehensive assessment of Japan’s nuclear policy.

Editor’s Note

This article was first published by The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

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Tatsujiro Suzuki's picture

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 22, 2017 4:13 pm GMT

Tatsujiro, a picture is worth a thousand words – your graph shows nuclear has been predominantly replaced by burning coal and natural gas, and (usurprisingly) in 2014 your country recorded the second-highest level of carbon emissions in its history:

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-carbon-japan-idUSKBN0N50BJ20150414

Obviously, Japan’s increased emissions have a deleterious effect on climate. Should global environmental health be dependent on the public “uncertainty” of any country?

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Mar 22, 2017 6:22 pm GMT

Years of false propaganda has placed its mark on the population.
Especially, when it is hinted that we have been misled by the government.
Again and again we see how people react without rational thinking as soon as somebody writes: “The hidden secret is – – – “
On http://wp.me/p1RKWc-yI I have tried to go against some of the many falsified pieces of “information”.
In my opinion, those who are guilty in the mess and the extra pollution, are Greenpeace and others, for whom fear is the key to financial support.
See also Greenpeace’s credibility is a myth. http://wp.me/p1RKWc-mu

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Mar 23, 2017 3:10 am GMT

Just one ton of separated plutonium is enough material to make more than 120 crude nuclear weapons.

This is hogwash.  The plutonium required to make workable weapons is made only in special reactors which can be refueled on-line.  It is specifically made to keep its fraction of isotopes which generate heat or lots of spontaneous fissions well below the levels found in used LWR fuel.  Plutonium from used LWR fuel is effectively impossible to weaponize.

Plutonium which contains 92% or more of the isotope Pu-239 (and thus 8% or less of all others) is considered “weapons-grade”.  Pu-240 has almost 5 orders of magnitude as many spontaneous fissions per gram as Pu-239.  Even lower-burnup LWR fuel has much less than 60% Pu-239 and over 20% Pu-240 [http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/fuel....

Weapons designed with uranium can use gun-type designs to bring two sub-critical masses together; the low SF rate of uranium means that the chain reaction is very unlikely to begin prematurely.  The much higher SF rate of plutonium requires an implosion-type design, collapsing a hollow sphere using high explosives to try to assemble the critical mass before a chain reaction begins.  Even with weapons-grade materials this sometimes fails, resulting in a “fizzle”.  It is next to impossible to build an implosion system that can work with the plutonium isotope mix in used LWR fuel, and no country has ever even attempted it.  Weapons designers know better than to bother.

Thus, all this talk about Japan’s inventory of “plutonium” is meaningless when discussing weapons.  Unless Japan spends a great deal of money setting up a system to isotopically separate Pu-239 from the dross, what it’s got is no more useful as military explosives than a massive heap of coal.

On the other hand, if Japan wasn’t so hot to dismantle the Monju reactor, all that plutonium could replace many, many shiploads of imported coal.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Mar 23, 2017 7:54 am GMT

Thanks to EngineerPoet for repeating what should have been common knowledge.
This picture will show the complicated arrangement of explosives. See https://thorkilsoee.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/vind/
Apparently the hysteria related to Fukushima has deep roots in the public.
See also http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/08/21/omg_new_crisis_disaster_at_fukus...

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Mar 23, 2017 10:44 am GMT

EP,
Apparently govt’s don’t agree with you.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 23, 2017 2:31 pm GMT

@Sustain – everyone on the planet should care about emissions. Like laying the blame at the feet of “Chindia”, pointing fingers is pointless.

But just as the U.S. has led the world in both emissions and democracy over the last two centuries, getting a grip on climate will likely come down to our ability to lead the way.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 23, 2017 3:21 pm GMT

@sustain

https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/images/2016.05.09/main.png

Japan’s emissions BTW have been increasing for several years, and are likely to continue to rise for time.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Mar 23, 2017 4:20 pm GMT

The public cost of Fukushima so far has been around $7.5 billion per year, even though costs have been wildly inflated by unnecessary policy. The EEG fees to sustain Germany’s energiewende amount to $24 billion per year.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 24, 2017 1:31 pm GMT

The Japanese public’s mistrust in nuclear power (and Japan’s return to dirty coal) is just another symptom that Japan has lost its place as a global technology leader. Forty years ago, the US market was being invaded by excellent Japanese products, and American companies (from electronics to automotive) were very nervous. The US military maintained a large presence in Japan (to protect the world from Japanese aggression).

Today, no one is afraid of Japan. The best Japanese (branded) cars are built in the US. The best electronics are US designed (and often Chinese built). And the US military in Japan is there to protect Japan, and other Pacific nations from North Korea.

More than ever, Japan is dependent on coal and gas imports from nations like the US.

It’s time for Japan to end its pity party and resume acting like a developed nation and technology leader. Japan’s sustainable energy future must include a nuclear-heavy mix of sustainable technologies. And that nuclear technology must include breeders or near-breeders: perhaps sodium-cooled fast reactors like Monju, or with molten salt reactors, like Furukawa’s Fuji reactor. It’s still worth pointing out that today’s LWRs would become highly sustainable when run on thorium, provided adequate reprocessing technology is developed. [edited]

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Mar 24, 2017 2:53 pm GMT

(now that the reply button is working for me again…)

Like a typical bloviator, Bas/Bentvels fails to distinguish between government poseurs and government weapons designers.  Only the second category actually matter.

North Korea tried to make Pu for a weapon in the 5 megawatt research reactor at Yongbyan.  Apparently, they tried to cheap out on the reprocessing and over-irradiated their uranium, making too much Np-240 (which decayed to Pu-240).  Seismic data suggested that their test bomb fizzled, yielding a fraction of a kiloton.

Further evidence suggests that the Yongbyan reactor was shut down after this, and Nork effort shifted to building a centrifuge cascade to make weapons-grade uranium.  However much plutonium North Korea has now, it’s militarily irrelevant.

(And now the permalink button has stopped working.  This is very, very weird.)

Rex Berglund's picture
Rex Berglund on Mar 24, 2017 3:34 pm GMT

Nathan, are you all right?

I’ve read your comments for years, I’ve never known you to make so many mistakes in language and fact.

“has its lost place”

“to project the world”

“More than even”

“molten solar reactors”

Then, there’s your comment about Monju, which has been canceled after 22 years and $9B, with an estimated $3.2B required to decommission by 2047.

This is not the Nathan Wilson I know.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 25, 2017 1:07 am GMT

whole population votes…

Including infants and coma patients, because they’re dedicated.

John Oneill's picture
John Oneill on Mar 26, 2017 9:02 am GMT

‘.. Monju, which has been canceled after 22 years and $9B..’
That’s another example of how pathetic Japanese leadership has become. With the BN600, twice the size of Monju, the Russians had 17 fires ( sodium oxidation actually produces less heat than burning carbon or hydrocarbons ). As planned, the fires were isolated and dealt with, and work continued. Their new BN800 has had none. The Japanese had one fire, panicked and covered it up, and then kept spending on the thing without doing anything with it. ‘ Sh__ or get off the pot ! ‘ ( They had been paying the Americans to do their development for them, with the Experimental Breeder Reactor II in Idaho, but Clinton reneged on the deal.)

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 26, 2017 4:17 pm GMT

Yes, I guess that was one too many late nights. Thanks.

Regarding the Monju reactor, to add to John’s comment, a badly run program does not prove that the underlying technology is bad. I read Plentiful Energy, which tells the story of the US IFR fast reactor development, and was impressed by the effectiveness, suitability, and safety of the technology. It should work very well alongside LWRs and molten salt reactors, but it needs the right market opportunity (i.e. a technically advanced fossil fuel importing country).

The fact that Japan is failing at nuclear technology is an extremely bad reflection on that nation. It’s also bad for the global climate, because in this area, fossil fuel producing countries (like the US and Germany) will have a very hard time being leaders and taking real steps to turn things against fossil fuels.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 26, 2017 4:49 pm GMT

Note that the 1990 emissions numbers make the Germany record look good. In fact, they are only taking credit for gathering the really low hanging fruit from East Germany post-reunification (replacing exceptionally inefficiency and obsolete Soviet power plants with modern coal designs). The bulk of Germany’s energy plans today are designed to protect their coal industry from much cleaner & safer nuclear competition.

The fact is neither the US nor Germany is on a path to clean energy. But at least Americans realize we are in a frac’ing boom. Germans are in a renewable+coal delusion.

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