Fukushima, Three Years Later
March 11, 2014
Since the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11th, 2011, the outlook for nuclear power in Japan has been uncertain. Despite efforts by the Japanese government and industry to institutionalize change, the public remains skeptical. Public opposition to restarting the reactors has fallen from 80% but still hovers between 55 and 60%.
Q1: How has Japanese regulation of nuclear power changed since the Fukushima accident?
A1: Japan’s operating reactors (48 plus 6 at Fukushima-Daiichi) shut down in the months following the accident and now remain closed pending formal certification that they meet safety requirements. Two major efforts now are the focus of attention: decommissioning the 6 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and restarting the remaining reactors.
The Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (known as the Kurokawa Commission), recommended establishing a more independent regulatory body in July 2012. The Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), was established in 2012 as an independent organization under the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), and consolidated all nuclear regulatory activities that were previously divided amongst NISA under METI, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and the Nuclear Safety Commission. In March 2014, the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) was merged into the NRA as envisioned in the original legislation, bringing much-needed technical expertise to carry out safety inspections at reactor sites. The NRA will need to tread a careful line between isolation and independence from industry and politics.
In July 2013, the NRA released new reactor safety regulations based on the concept of defense-in-depth. Additional requirements for protective measures against earthquakes and tsunamis include defining the “design-basis tsunami” as exceeding the largest ever recorded and active faults as those with seismic activity in the past 120,000-130,000 years and potentially up to 400,000 years. These new regulations also incorporate measures addressing volcanic eruptions, tornadoes and forest fires, and improved protection against other sources of common cause failures, such as internal fires, flooding, and power outages. Utilities will need to install countermeasures for a broad range of severe accidents encompassing core damage, containment vessel failure, and radioactive contamination. Safety and emergency measures against acts of terrorism, such as an intentional airplane crash, are also included.
According to the NRA, processing applications for new safety certifications will take a minimum of six months per reactor. In all, however, it may take a decade or more to assess whether the organizational changes that followed the Fukushima accident have the desired effect.
Q2: What is the current status of Japanese reactor restarts?
A2: Although the DPJ-led Kan government declared it would phase out nuclear power after Fukushima, the Liberal Democratic Party-led government of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has supported nuclear power. In February 2014, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry released The Draft Basic Plan for Energy Supply and Demand (commonly referred to as the Basic Energy Plan), which described nuclear power as an “important base load energy source,” reflecting the intent of the Abe administration to restart Japan’s idle reactors. The draft plan, which must be approved by the Diet, avoids quantitative targets for the specific energy mix but also indicates support for Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle efforts and the long-term fast reactor program (redefined away from breeding plutonium to spent fuel management).
Observers predict some reactors will restart in 2014, and the NRA has indicated it may prioritize among the applicants. Although restarts should proceed on a technical basis, the process is intensely political. Eight utilities have applied for restarting 17 reactors, of which 12 are pressurized water reactors and the remaining 5 are boiling water reactors or advanced boiling water reactors. So far, utilities have spent $12.3 billion on the restart process. The NRA is currently compiling a list of reactors that meet earthquake and tsunami risk criteria, with a focus on six pressurized water reactors run by Kansai Electric Power Co., Kyushu Electric Power Co., Hokkaido Electric Power Co., and Shikoku Electric Power Co. The NRA will then craft a “draft screening report,” which will be subject to public review for four weeks and town hall meetings. Following safety certification, utilities will still need to obtain the approval of local prefectures and municipalities, particularly those that are within the emergency planning zones.
Q3: What is the decommissioning status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactors?
A3: Decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power site may take over 30 years, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission Expert Group. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has warned that the total costs may swell to $125 billion, including costs for cleanup and compensation. The first phase of decommissioning covers preparations to remove fuel assemblies from the spent fuel pools. The second phase includes removal of spent fuel and preparation for removal of fuel debris from damaged cores in Units 1-3 of the Fukushima plant. The third phase encompasses removal of fuel debris and completion of the decommissioning process, including radioactive waste processing and disposal.
The plans for Units 1-3 are still open to revision, with several varying target schedules for achieving the goals of removal of spent fuel and fuel debris. Phase 2 began in November 2013 with the removal of spent fuel and unirradiated fuel from Unit 4. As of March 9, 2014, 462 of 1533 total fuel assemblies have been transferred from the Unit 4 spent fuel pool to central pool storage on-site.
The decommissioning process has encountered several hurdles. TEPCO has struggled to contain multiple leaks of radioactive water from its storage tanks, including 300 tons of contaminated water leaking into the ocean in August 2013. The most recent leak was 100 tons of contaminated water in February 2014. The site currently stores 340,000 tons of contaminated water in about 1,000 tanks. The flow of contaminated groundwater into the ocean has prompted TEPCO to build an underground ice wall around the plant to prevent the groundwater from seeping out into the ocean. Organization of the entire effort has come under criticism, particularly the lack of oversight by TEPCO of subcontractors.
Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Bobby Kim is research assistant and program coordinator with the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.
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