Japan has adopted a plan to extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors, replace the ones which have become obsolete and even build new ones.
Amidst global fuel shortages, rising prices and pressure to reduce carbon emissions, Japan’s leaders have begun to turn back toward nuclear energy.
The announcement which was made today, December 22, 2022 was their clearest commitment yet after keeping mute on delicate topics like the prospect of building new reactors.
Under the new policy, Japan will maximize the use of existing reactors by restarting as many of them as possible and prolonging the operating life of aging ones beyond a 60-year limit.
The government also pledged to develop next-generation reactors.
In 2011, a powerful earthquake and the ensuing tsunami caused multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant; a cataclysm that amplified anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan and at one point led the government to promise to phase out the energy by around 2030.
Since then, the government has recommitted to the technology, including setting a target for nuclear to make up 20-22% of the country’s energy mix by the end of the decade.
Meanwhile, restart approvals for idled nuclear reactors have come slowly since the Fukushima disaster, which led to stricter safety standards.
Utility firms have applied for restarts at 27 reactors in the past decade. Seventeen have passed safety checks and only ten have resumed operation.
According to the new policy document, nuclear power serves “an important role as a carbon-free baseload energy source in achieving supply stability and carbon neutrality” and pledged to “sustain use of nuclear power into the future.”
Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida disclosed that he planned to get the Cabinet to approve the policy and submit necessary bills to Parliament.
As part of the new policy, the Economy and Industry Ministry has drafted a plan to allow extensions every 10 years for reactors after 30 years of operation while also permitting utilities to subtract offline periods in calculating reactors’ operational life.
The plan was endorsed by the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Japan’s nuclear watchdog. New safety inspection rules still need to be put into law and approved by Parliament.
New Safety Rules Safer Than Current Option
Nuclear Regulation Authority Commissioner, Shinichi Yamanaka, disclosed that the new safety rules requiring operational permits every decade after 30 years will be safer than a current one-time 20-year extension option for 40-year-old reactors.
Most nuclear reactors in Japan are more than 30 years old. Four reactors that have operated for more than 40 years have received permission to operate, and one is currently online.
Under the new policy, Japan will also push for the development and construction of “next-generation innovative reactors” to replace about 20 reactors now set for decommissioning.
Thursday’s adoption of the new policy comes less than four months after Kishida launched the “GX (Green Transformation) Implementation Council” of outside experts and ministers.
This council intends to “consider all options” to compile a new policy that addresses global fuel shortages amid Russia’s war on Ukraine and seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Nuclear energy accounts for less than 7% of Japan’s energy supply, and achieving the government’s goal of raising that share to 20-22% by 2030 will require about 27 reactors, from the current 10; a target some say is not achievable.
The new policy also does not help address impending supply shortages because reactors cannot be restarted quickly enough.