As The Diplomat noted last week, Japan’s nuclear energy providers are struggling to remain profitable with all the country’s nuclear reactors currently offline. The government is highly aware of its struggling nuclear power sector, and the threat of another summer where Japan’s energy grid is stretched to the limit, and energy imports soar. With both of these problems in mind, three news items highlight the direction both the government and nuclear companies may take to avoid another summer energy crunch.
To begin, consider the problem nuclear energy providers are facing. The Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco) last week lost a Fukui District Court ruling to restart two reactors at its Oi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukui Prefecture, a ruling that Kepco is currently appealing. On Tuesday, Kepco President Makoto Yagi said, “We’ve appealed the verdict, which means the ruling is not yet confirmed. Our thinking hasn’t changed about restarting the reactors as soon as their safety has been confirmed,” according to the Japan Times.
Yagi gave three conditions upon which the reactors would be restarted. First, the power plant must receive a positive safety inspection from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Yagi said permission to restart would also need to be granted by both local and central authorities. Receiving permission from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government should be a minor hurdle. However, winning the support of nearby communities will be much more difficult. The mayor of Maizuru, Ryozo Tatami, whose city is within 30 km of the Oi power plant, said, “We need a safety check involving experts selected by Maizuru and Kyoto Prefecture.”
The Fukui District Court ruling would allow people living within 250 km of the plant the right to sue to have the plant closed. According to a separate Japan Times article, “The entire Kansai region, most of Chubu, including Nagoya, much of Chugoku, including Hiroshima, and roughly a third of Shikoku lies within 250 km of the Oi plant.”
Despite strong local opposition, Abe’s government is determined to bring back online as many nuclear reactors as logistically possible. On Wednesday, an NRA official told AFP that Abe’s government wants to replace two of five commissioners serving on the NRA when their terms expire. One of the commissioners Abe reportedly most wants to replace is Kunihiko Shimizu, who has been criticized for saying that at least two reactors sit on active fault lines.
The NRA official who spoke with the AFP said that the terms of both Shimizu and former under-secretary general of the United Nations, Kenzo Oshima, are set to expire in September, at which point Satoru Tanaka and Akira Ishiwatari will be nominated. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday the two men “are the best people, who can assume their duties independently, with view to science, neutrality and fairness.”
On Monday, the NRA also approved a plan to freeze the soil under disaster stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The ice wall is intended to keep the polluted water used to cool the reactors from mixing with groundwater that may seep in below the plant. While this idea has been employed before in the construction of tunnels near water courses, scientist point out that nothing on this scale has been tried before. Since the decommissioning of the plant is expected to last decades, the Fukushima ice wall will be in employed longer than any previous uses of the technology. Approval of a plan so much larger and more ambitious than any previous ice wall shows the limited options both the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and the NRA have at the moment in dealing with such a massive clean-up effort.
The multiple dimensions of Japan’s nuclear conundrum make grappling with it (and finding a nationwide solution) difficult for all parties involved. Abe’s government is determined to bring down energy imports that wreak havoc every summer with Japan’s balance of trade, which is exacerbated due to the weak yen. Local governments and their constituencies are determined to keep the tragedy of Fukushima as far from their own doorstep as possible. The inability of Tepco to adequately address the continued problems at the Daiichi power plant only further reinforces the fear of people who live near existing reactors. Despite Abe’s insistence, local populations are likely to keep the number of reactors that come back online much lower than the government wants, at least in the near future, as long as the central government and energy providers give them veto power.