Japan: Kishida Ends Year With Pivot for New Nuclear Era

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In less than four months, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Dec. 22 approved a complete reversal of the country's post-Fukushima policy away from reduced dependence on nuclear power toward one that promotes accelerated reactor restarts, further reactor life extensions and construction of newbuilds and "innovative" reactors. Critics complained the new "green transformation" policy does little toward expanding renewables and was done without public participation.

Speaking at a meeting of business leaders in a “GX League” implementation meeting at his official residence, Kishida affirmed the draft "Basic Policy for the Realization of Green Transformation (GX)” drawn up under the leadership of Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti) chief Yasutoshi Nakamura after the prime minister ordered the study Aug. 24. The draft basically followed Meti's recommendations, including its choice to retain the legal 40-year limit for reactors with one extension and with discounts for time spent in safety reviews or idled by court injunctions from the statutory lifetime. The result could permit reactors to operate for more than 60 years.

If ratified by the Cabinet as expected in February, the document would reverse the consensus policy of "reducing dependence" on nuclear power in place since the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown. In 2021, nuclear accounted for 7% of total power output in 2021, far short of the official goal of 20%-22% by 2030. The Citizens Commission on Nuclear Energy (CCNE) denounced Kishida's move for transgressing the sixth basic energy plan ratified by his first cabinet in October 2021. The CCNE also declared that that tight power supplies in March and May which were used to justify the turn "had nothing to do with nuclear power" and that increasing dependence on nuclear power “will only make things worse.”

The draft also mandated the floating of 20 trillion yen ($152 billion) in "GX Economic Transition Bonds" over the next 10 years to "support" corporate investments in "decarbonization" projects, and a total 150 trillion yen to be invested by the public and private sector in building a "stable decarbonized power supply system." The first installment of 500 billion yen in bonds will be included in the 2023 national government budget, NHK reported Dec. 19.

The about-face on nuclear took some industry officials by surprise. One senior professional told Energy Intelligence that "I had thought that Kishida was too weak to launch a new initiative on nuclear power, but his position seems to have been affected by the global recognition of nuclear power as a viable option to combat climate change and the wake-up call about Japan's energy vulnerabilities delivered by the Russian-Ukrainian war."

The Regulatory Cost

In parallel, Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Shinosuke Yamanaka announced Dec. 20 the NRA's initial ratification of a new draft regulatory framework to accompany the government's new policy. It's unclear whether it specifically allows "time-outs" to be discounted from reactor age calculations, which the agency at least initially opposed. But it does require operators to submit detailed reactor aging management plans to prevent reactor and facility deterioration, and subjects reactors to stiff special inspections after 30 years and every 10 years thereafter to 60 years.

If ratified after a solicitation of public opinion and discussions with industry, Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Council, told Energy Intelligence that "the new regulatory process for aging reactors would be less predictable and could be even stricter, so it is not clear that the new policy will result in an increase in nuclear power development as planned."

He also expressed concern over the relative lack of attention in the draft toward expanding renewable energy and toward "structural changes that are needed in our society to shift to carbon neutrality."

It's difficult to gauge the immediate impact of Kishida's about-face but clearly 2022 saw progress in bringing "as many as nine" of the ten already-operating reactors back on line in the 2022-2023 winter as the government requested. As of Dec. 19 all nine had been restarted, according to Meti's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (Anre), the exception being Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Genkai-2.

Moreover, Kansai Electric's 826-megawatt "over 40" Mihama-3 was restarted in late July and two others operated by Kansai in Fukui, the 826-MW Takahama-1 and -2, are slated for restart in May and June 2023, respectively.

The next likely restarts would be the first in the boiling water reactor (BWR) category — once controversial because the Fukushima reactors were BWRs. They are Tohoku Electric's Onagawa-2 and Chugoku Electric's Shimane-2 in the first half of 2024.

Whether the government's go-go attitude toward nuclear is affecting NRA decision-making is equally difficult to prove, but it's notable that shortly after Yamanaka took over the reins, the agency resumed reviews of restart applications for Chugoku Electric's Shimane-3 ABWR in Shimane prefecture and Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga-2 in Fukui.

However, Youichi Nishiyama, an analyst with Kyoto-based Green Action, told Energy Intelligence that a major threshold for Kansai to continue operating its three "over 40" units may well be whether the Osaka-based utility fulfills its commitment to Fukui Prefecture Governor Tatsuji Sugimoto to announce by end-2023 an interim spent fuel storage site outside of the prefecture.

The Back-End Problem

Prospects for relieving logjams in the back-end in Japan appear dim, despite Kishida's promise to work with operators to "tackle" such issues as the lack of a final repository for high-level nuclear waste and the inability to commercially operate either the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP) or its associated mixed-oxide-fuel fabrication facility in Aomori prefecture. Japan Nuclear Fuel (JNFL) will reportedly announce Dec. 26 that the RRP will come on line in the first half of fiscal 2024 — after announcing Sep. 7 the plant's 26th delay since its 1997 start-up.

The judiciary remains another variable that the government cannot directly control. In 2022, court decisions were a mixed bag for the industry, with two separate district court decisions in its favor (for operation of Kansai's Takahama nuclear power station and Mihama-3) and a third against (blocking the possible possible restart of Hokkaido Electric's Tomari station).

The most critical judgement in 2023 may be issued on May. 24 when three judges of the Sendai District Court are expected to issue a decision on a petition by residents calling for an injunction against Onagawa-2's restart. The petition, filed in May 2021, highlights claims of inadequate evacuation plans in Miyagi prefecture, an argument successfully used to obtain an injunction against operation of JAPC's Tokai-2 in March 2021.

Although Kishida enjoys solid support among conservatives for his new nuclear policy, he will likely face some pushback from the CDP, the largest opposition party, and its leader, Kenta Izumi, who will be able to directly debate the prime minister during the Diet proceedings. On Dec. 13, the CDP called on the Kishida Cabinet to retract its policy to maximize use of nuclear power which it noted occurred without public debate.

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