Japan: Meti Pushes 'Fukui Model' as Mihama-3 Restarts

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Japan's nuclear power industry scored two hits this week as Kansai Electric Power Co. restarted its "over-40" Mihama-3 reactor on Jun. 23, and a new joint government-industry effort began aiming to rebuild public trust in nuclear power in Fukui prefecture, home to Kansai's nuclear fleet. The restart of the 45-year-old reactor, which has been off line for more than a decade, marked the first for a reactor already well beyond its initial licensing period, although the 826 megawatt unit is expected to be taken off line in October to complete the required installation of counterterrorism safety measures. Kansai has not released start-up dates for Takahama-1 or -2, both also over the 40-year mark, as they too are still working to complete overdue “specific severe accident response measures” (NIW May14'21). Mihama-3 is scheduled to be linked to the grid Jun. 29, according to Kansai's Jun. 24 announcement. Opponents on Jun. 21 filed a new suit for an injunction against Mihama-3's operation, charging that its seismic resistance was too weak and evacuation plans inadequate, especially given the coronavirus pandemic. On Monday, meanwhile, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti) launched a new initiative aimed at securing public support for continued or expanded nuclear development in Fukui -- and perhaps ultimately more local acceptance for restarting other nuclear power plants elsewhere. The first meeting of the new "Joint Innovation Council for the Future Vision of Localities with Nuclear Power Stations in Fukui Prefecture” was held in Tsuruga City, which hosts Japan Atomic Power Co.'s (JAPC) idled Tsuruga nuclear power plant. The event was broadcast on YouTube with an array of government and utility officials, including Shin Hosaka, commissioner of Meti's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (Anre), Fukui Prefecture Governor Tatsuji Sugimoto, the mayors of four localities which host nuclear power plants, and senior executives of Kansai Electric, JAPC and Hokuriku Electric Power Co. Officials explained that the aim of the new initiative is to address anxieties over the extension of reactor operating lifetimes, first in Fukui, and then in other regions with idled plants in order to secure reactor restart approvals. However, the project seems to have wide wings under which any number of other energy and transport projects could be integrated with nuclear power facilities, and thus boost local and regional economic prospects, stem population declines and provide alternative sources of energy and employment as reliance on nuclear power declines. Skeptics say it's a means for keeping nuclear power in Japan alive. Citizen's Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) Secretary-General Hajime Matsukubo described the new scheme as "essentially a variant of the existing 'nuclear money' model," referring to a long-standing practice in Japan whereby the federal government injects millions of yen into communities hosting nuclear power plants. The concept of developing medium-to-long-term continuous engagement with localities was formulated by Anre's nuclear power strategy subcommittee in February and March as part of Meti's campaign to secure reactor extension approvals beyond 40 years. It reflects the extent to which the pro-nuclear Meti and its subsidiary organization Anre are determined to neutralize or reverse nuclear's continued unpopularity in Japan and even within the LDP. Nuclear opponents argue that top priority should be given to renewables on the basis that it would be more effective in promoting carbon-free power generation and offer greater local employment and income redistribution benefits than would nuclear (NIW Jun.11'21). Fukui was selected as the "pioneering example" of the new “joint revitalization” endeavor thanks to its high concentration of nuclear power stations, including Kansai's three "over 40" PWRs that have already secured NRA restart approval, according to Meti. Outlining Future Development In his introductory remarks, Anre's Hosaka said that national government and power companies had to "promote development" at regional and local levels to ease anxieties about nuclear power, and that within the context of the new initiative discussions should be held in these areas about their "future image" as well as the possible siting of new nuclear research and development facilities and fostering of new industries. Hosaka said a working group will draft an overall program to be finalized by the council by year's end based on the content of local government strategies, the "future image" of industry and lifestyles "20-30 years from now," all of which would be promoted with assistance from the national government and utilities. In addition, the Anre commissioner said necessary national "basic policies" and the operational schedules of the power companies to "coexist in the communities" will be summarized as a process chart with annual review. Sugimoto, who consented to restarting Mihama-3 and Takahama-1 and -2, outlined three priorities: integration of nuclear-related R&D projects, such as a planned research reactor at the former site of the failed Monju breeder reactor, and local human resource development; energy diversification, possibly in later years even including hydrogen, taking advantage of the fact that Fukui's nuclear plants are located in southern Fukui, known locally as the "Reinan" area; and, "double tracking" of local industries within the area with smart agriculture, information technology and tourism. The mayors of four key localities in Fukui that host nuclear power plants presented plans to improve the attractiveness of their districts in hopes of reversing outward migration and to develop renewables, including offshore wind as well as solar, and related ancillary fields in parallel to nuclear. Much hopes also ride on the scheduled completion by early 2023 of a long-promised extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen high-speed railway line that will link Tsuruga and Fukui directly with Tokyo. Another visionary theme was the formation of a supply chain for the production of hydrogen by Kansai's nuclear power plants or by renewable power installations for use as fuel for thermal power plants, a concept outlined in a Kansai brief about its "zero-carbon" plans. Nikkei, Japan's leading business daily, observed in a Jun. 21 commentary that the youngest operating reactor in Fukui, Kansai's Ohi-4, would reach the end of its 60-year operating life in 2053, making reduction of dependence on the nuclear sector through "double-tracking" with other industries an urgent priority for localities. CNIC's Matsukubo said that "Investment in nuclear power-related industries has stimulated the growth of the construction sector, but has not led to the revitalization of other industries in the prefecture." Professor Hiroshi Sasaki of the Niigata University of International and Information Studies put it more succinctly. “Trying to achieve regional revitalization together with nuclear power is like painting a rice cake and then trying to eat it.” Dennis Engbarth, Taipei City

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