Japan’s largest nuclear power station moves to center of reactor restart efforts

  • TEPCO calls for rate increase if it cannot restart of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa
  • KANSAI gets preliminary approval to restart Takahama 3 & 4
  • MIT’s Richard Lester offers TEPCO and Japan advice on reducing greenhouse gasses by investing in nuclear energy

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, composed of seven nuclear reactors, is one of the world’s largest power stations. It includes five 1100 MW BWRs and two 1356 ABWR reactors. All of them are well within the 40 year envelope mandated by the Japanese government’s METI agency which is the red line for reactor restarts. The oldest units came online in 1984 and the newest in 1996.

Getting all of the reactors at the site online again is emerging as a key priority for the government and for TEPCO which owns and operates the plant. For the government, getting the reactors online means being able to give up expensive fossil fuel imports equal to 8.2 GWe of CO2 emitting capacity. For TEPCO, which is an investor owned utility, despite being more or less under government control since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, sustaining newly won profitability means turning these reactors back on.

TEPCO President Naomi Hirose knows he is facing significant local opposition to restarting the reactors even if they pass the Nuclear Regulatory Authority’s safety checks. Public trust is a huge issue for TEPCO, and winning it back won’t be easy. Area residents with long memories have reminded Japanese news media that in 2002 TEPCO had to shut down all 17 of its reactors due to false inspection reports.

A 2007 earthquake resulted in a 16 month shutdown of all seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa due to a series of minor radioactive releases from low level waste drums that were damaged, small fires, and concerns that the quake might have caused reactor damage. It didn’t, and following independent inspections by the IAEA and government agencies, all of the reactors were eventually restarted by 2010.

The governor of Niigata province, Hirohiko Izumida, which is where the reactors are located, is hard over in his opposition to TEPCO’s plans to restart the seven reactors TEPCO wants to restart the two newest units, Units 6 & 7 in July.

Izumida is still outraged by TEPCO’s alleged negligence related to the Fukushima disaster and wants company officials held accountable. However, government prosecutors have twice refused to bring charges against TEPCO executives, reaffirming their decision in December 2014, making the governor’s protest a strictly local affair. Unfortunately for TEPCO, local officials like Izumida have great power to influence the decision to restart the reactors. For the moment, he’s holding firm.

So TEPCO may be deciding to raise the stakes. TEPCO’s Hirose told the Bloomberg wire service Feb 16 that if he cannot restart the seven reactors, he will raise electricity rates in the province and nationally and will blame local intransigence in Niigate Province for it.  If he does, it will be the first rate increases since 2012.

In effect, Hirose may now playing hardball with Izumida who has resisted all the usual economic incentives Japanese nuclear utilities use to bring local officials into their camp. The message to 29 million customers in Tokyo is that their rates are going up because Izumida won’t give his assent to restart two safe nuclear reactors.

It’s not all about political hardball. TEPCO is profitable which also helps put the rate increase in perspective. The utility forecasts a $6.9 billion increase in net income for the year ending March 31 over the same period last year. The difference in profitability between starting and not starting the seven reactors this year is about 52 billion yen or $4.3 billion.

Where this is going to wind up is that that either Izumida backs down, and gives in to TEPCO’s “ceaseless effort to gain his understanding,” or the seven reactors could become a poster child for restarting the entire fleet. This is something PM Abe doesn’t want so look for some kind of national intervention to restart the reactors tht avoids turning Izumida into a centerpiece of anti-nuclear fervor and a potential candidate for national office. He’s a former METI minister who knows his way around Japanese politics.

KANSAI’s Takahama units 3 & 4 cleared for restart

While TEPCO struggles with restarting its seven reactors, KANSAI Electric received word that its two newer 870 MW PWR reactors at the Takahama nuclear power station have passed the basic standards for operation set by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.  The reactors also need approval for safety upgrades and a green light from local authorities. KANSAI officials told the Reuters wire service Feb 12 they believe the two reactors can return to revenue service by November of this year.

KANSAI is also pushing to gain approval to restart two older 826 MW PWR type reactors which came online in 1975. KANSAI says they should be considered for the special provisions to extend the life of older reactors due to their power rating and ability to upgrade them with the required safety features.

Japan gets a word of advice on reactor restarts

Japan for many years operated as a closed society when it came to taking advice from nuclear experts in western nations. Since Fukushima, there have been positive changes. For instance, former US NRC Chairman Dale Klein serves as a consultant and adviser to the Fukushima cleanup effort. Despite offering sometimes sharp, and deserved, criticism of cleanup efforts, his Japanese clients continue to rely on his expertise.

More recently, MIT professor Richard K. Lester, who heads the university’s Department of Nuclear Science & Engineering, visited the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa site to meet with TEPCO plant managers and utility executives. He told his audience that TEPCO has made progress improving the safety features of the reactors and their ability to ride out the effects of an earthquake. Bringing Lester to the plant may also have had a positive effect on the local population which might take some confidence from the positive review of a world class expert on nuclear engineering.

However, Lester also had some words of advice for PM Abe and the Japanese people generally regarding reactor restarts. He points out that Japan is the third largest economy on the globe and, as such, is major emitter of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The situation has become worse since Fukushima as Japan shifted to fossil fuels as it shut down all 48 of its reactors. According to Japanese data cited by the Japan Times, greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels in Japan increase from 1.25 billion tons in 2010 to 1.39 billion tons in 2013 or by 140 million tons, or a bit over 11%. The numbers are supposed to be going in the other direction.

Lester told his hosts there is no way Japan can reduce its CO2 emissions unless it restarts the reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and elsewhere.

“I think the central point is that Japan and the U.S., and other societies, must do much, much more with nuclear energy.”

In an oblique nod to Japans continuing efforts to export nuclear technologies, Lester added that Japan’s efforts to strengthen the safety measures at its nuclear plants are significant not just for Japan but also for nations that plan to ramp up their investment in nuclear energy. Lester also called for stronger cooperation on nuclear safety among nations and said Japan can play a leadership role based on its efforts to restart its nuclear fleet in the post Fukushima era.

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