TOKYO — A period lasting nearly two years in which all nuclear power plants in Japan were idle has finally come to an end.
Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture restarted its No. 1 reactor Tuesday.
If all goes well, the plant will start generating electricity on Friday.
It is the first nuclear power plant to resume operations under new and stricter safety standards, which were introduced following the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
A stable supply of electricity is vital for the people’s livelihood and the nation’s economic development.
It is significant that progress has been made in the utilisation of nuclear power, an important energy source that can be produced at low cost and with stability.
Resuming operations at the plant comes after an unusually long hiatus, lasting more than four years.
Kyushu Electric must remain cautious in carrying out its work and avoid problems by all possible means.
Risk of accidents reduced
The unexpectedly powerful tsunami in March 2011 hit the Fukushima power plant, which lost its power source and therefore its ability to cool its reactors, leading to a reactor core meltdown.
Drawing lessons from the accident, the Nuclear Regulation Authority drew up new safety standards that oblige nuclear power plant operators to reinforce their facilities on the assumption that a natural disaster more massive than previously envisaged would occur.
The new standards have also made it mandatory for nuclear plant operators to take such measures as reinforcing cooling systems to ensure they remain operable during emergencies, in preparation for serious accidents that previously were believed would “never occur.”
As the Sendai plant is located on high ground, it is unlikely for the plant to be inundated by a tsunami.
But Kyushu Electric set up safety barriers to protect pumps that would draw in seawater to cool down nuclear reactors, and built a weir so that seawater can also be brought in when a tsunami recedes.
In the southern part of Kyushu, there are a number of volcanic mountains, such as Sakurajima and Mt. Kirishima.
In light of this, Kyushu Electric has decided to constantly monitor the volcanic activity of these mountains and stop operating the plant if there is any indication a massive eruption is likely to occur, while at the same time moving nuclear fuel to a secure location in such an emergency.
With safety measures more stringent than those taken before the Fukushima disaster, it can be said the danger of a serious accident occurring at the plant has been markedly reduced.
Nevertheless, the risk of an accident cannot be reduced to zero.
On the reactivation of the plant, Kyushu Electric’s President Michiaki Uriu said, “We will continue to do our utmost to ensure the safety of operations, while proactively disclosing relevant information.” This is a reasonable resolution.
An evacuation plan in the event of a nuclear accident is also important.
Nine cities and towns located within about 30 kilometers of the Sendai plant have already drawn up evacuation plans.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yoichi Miyazawa said, “In the unlikely event of an accident, the central government will take the lead in dealing with it.”
It is necessary for the central government and local governments concerned to cooperate in holding a series of evacuation drills for local residents to enhance the effectiveness of the evacuation plans.
Limits to thermal energy
In commenting on resumed operations at the Sendai plant, Miyazawa said, “Steady progress [in reactivating idled nuclear power reactors] is indispensable to achieve sound economic progress and stabilise the life of the people.” This is a reasonable statement.
Nuclear power generation accounted for 30 per cent of this nation’s electricity supply before the 2011 earthquake.
However, the disaster led to a nationwide halt in nuclear power plants operation, a development that has raised the percentage of thermal power generation vis-a-vis the total power supply to 90 per cent.
From the viewpoint of energy security, an excessive reliance on imported fuel is problematic in many respects.
The growth in fuel costs has resulted in a 25 per cent increase in home electricity charges and a 38 per cent hike in electricity bills for industrial use, compared with pre-earthquake levels.
A considerable number of small and medium-size companies have been put under considerable pressure, even to the extent of shutting up shop.
The shortage of generating capacity has not caused such problems as a massive power outage.
However, the fact remains that the current electricity supply has been only made possible by even putting into operation outdated thermal power plants that would otherwise not be used.
There are significant problems in using renewable energy such as solar and wind power generation.
Power output from these sources fluctuate depending on the weather.
As circumstances stand today, renewable energy cannot serve as the main source of electric power supply.
Nuclear power generation is an important base-load power source that can stably generate electricity at low fuel costs.
Smooth progress must be made in reactivating suspended reactors after confirming the safety of these facilities.
In commenting on the Sendai plant, Yukio Edano, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, said, “I don’t think there is a need to resume operations in a compelling and hasty manner.” He seems to misunderstand the situation.
When the DPJ was in power, then prime minister Yoshihiko Noda decided to resume operations at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power station, apparently hoping to protect people’s lives from an industrial hollowing-out and loss of employment.
It is extremely regrettable that the DPJ has not inherited such a broad perspective.
The focus of attention is whether other nuclear power facilities can be reactivated smoothly.
The Sendai facility’s No. 2 reactor will likely be reactivated this autumn, and the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant as early as this winter.
However, it is not clear whether and when operations will be resumed at other nuclear power plants.
Extend operations to 60 years
It has taken more than two years to reactivate the Sendai plant’s No. 1 reactor after an application was filed for resumption of operations there.
This is because an application requires a massive amount of documents that have to be scrutinised.
By using its experience in addressing the Sendai plant-related application, the NRA should expedite its examination of similar applications that have been submitted.
The government has said the nation’s best power mix for fiscal 2030 is to ensure that the percentage of nuclear power generation vis-a-vis the total power supply stands somewhere between 20 per cent and 22 per cent.
However, this objective will not be achieved if the current rule requiring nuclear power reactors to be decommissioned 40 years in principle after they are put into operation is strictly applied.
With this in mind, the government should adopt a policy of extending the life of reactors in operation up to 60 years, while building new ones.
To continue utilising nuclear power plants, it is important that the government should be involved and pave the way to a nuclear fuel cycle, in which spent nuclear fuel is reused, and selection of final disposal sites for radioactive waste.
This article was from The Yomiuri Shimbun, Tokyo / Asia News Network and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.