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Japan: Back to a nuclear future?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green

The Japanese government's draft policy for electricity supply to 2030, recently endorsed by a panel of 'experts' at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, envisages nuclear power supplying 20−22% of electricity in 2030, with renewables supplying 22−24%, coal 26% and gas 27%.1,2 In 2010, nuclear power accounted for 28.6% of electricity generation, while renewables supplied 9.6%, with most of that coming from hydro.

The draft is likely to be adopted as official government policy in the coming months.3

Former Democratic Party of Japan parliamentarian Satoshi Shima said Japan has energy politics but no energy policy. Politics is about making arrangements as to who will gain profits, according to Shima, whereas policy is about deciding the best choice from an overall perspective. "Japan, as it stands now, has nothing more than a sum of stakeholders' lobbyism. Nuclear opponents are no match for pro-nuclear lobbies, which are so influential," Shima said.4

Leaving aside the questionable merits of the draft policy, it is doubtful whether nuclear can reach or sustain a 20−22% contribution. Around 34 of Japan's idled 43 reactors would need to be restarted to reach that figure.5 That is at the upper end of estimates of the number of reactors likely to be restarted. Some anticipate far fewer restarts −  for example Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicts just 10 to 12 restarts.6

To maintain a 20−22% contribution, there would need to be numerous extensions beyond planned 40-year reactor lifetimes, and/or new reactors. An analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) concludes that nuclear will probably supply no more than 10% of electricity in 2030, taking into account costs and the regulatory hurdles required for lifetime extensions beyond 40 years.2

"Overall, the government's outlook appears to be an attempt at reconciling competing goals of achieving a lower-emission generation mix while at the same time protecting the politically favoured technologies of coal and nuclear," BNEF said.7

"The Japanese government faces a twofold challenge," said Jane Nakano, an energy and security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "How many reactors can they restart, and how many new ones can they build to start replacing those aging power plants?"6

Japan's reactor restart process has been "one step forward, two steps back" according to financial analyst Greg Peel from FN Arena.8

Japan had 54 power reactors before Fukushima. Now, the number of 'operable' reactors has fallen to 43, with all six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi permanently shut down along with five other reactors at four plants. None of the 43 'operable' reactors are operating.' Applications to restart 21 reactors have been submitted to the NRA.

Every one of the applications is the subject of a lawsuit by local residents determined to stop reactor restarts.9

Reactor restarts − the Sendai saga

Kyushu Electric Power Company has received the third and final regulatory approval to restart the Sendai 1 and 2 reactors. Kyushu submitted its application to restart the reactors to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in July 2013. In September 2014, the NRA gave Kyushu approval to make changes to the nuclear plant. In March 2015, the company's modifications − such as installing new piping to enhance emergency core cooling systems, and additional emergency generators − were approved. In May 2015, the NRA approved Kyushu's operational safety plans including emergency response plans. Final inspections are under way, and Kyushu plans restarting Sendai 1 in mid-August and Sendai 2 in late September.10

Kyushu has obtained approval from the prefectural government and from Satsuma-Sendai City for the restart of Sendai 1 and 2. Strong opposition in neighboring communities, who were not consulted, was ignored.

In November 2014, Kagoshima Prefectural Council approved a petition for the restart of the Sendai reactors, while rejecting 31 petitions opposing it in some ways (e.g. outright opposition, calling for caution, demanding more research and the inclusion of more local residents as stakeholders).11

In April 2015, a local court rejected a legal bid to block the restart by residents concerned about the plant's vulnerability to nearby volcanoes.12,13 Residents have appealed the decision. Lawyer Hiroyuki Kawai said the ruling was "full of mistakes of fact."14 Lawyers representing residents said in a statement: "With this rejection, the court has abandoned its duty as a fortress of human rights. The cowardly attitude of a judge who does not stop abuse of human rights by government deserves strong criticism."15 More than half of the residents who had sought an injunction dropped their actions after Kyushu threatened to countersue for massive damages caused by any delay.

Kyushu has been required to implement some safety upgrades, but concerns remain. Kyushu has a 'grace period' in which to install certain safety features such as
filtered ventilation systems, and the company has been given approval to use a temporary off-site command center for emergencies while a permanent one is being built.

Kobe University professor and seismologist Katsuhiko Ishibashi said in April 2015: "Kyushu Electric was allowed to select their own criteria for quakes that could hit the plant and they ignored several as outliers."16

A November 2014 editorial in Japan Times said the NRA's approval of Kyushu's restart plans contained "serious safety and procedural problems" such as inadequate evacuation plans, the lack of a permanent off-site command centre in the case of an emergency, the exclusion of eight municipalities from the approval process, and numerous other problems. The editorial said "a dangerous precedent has been set and many fundamental questions remain unanswered."17

Other reactors

Another saga is unfolding with Kansai's Takahama 3 and 4. Kansai has received most of the necessary NRA approvals to restart the reactors.18 However in May 2015 the Fukui district court upheld an injunction banning the restart of the two reactors, describing the NRA's guidelines as "too loose" and "irrational".19 Residents argued that Kansai underestimated earthquake risks, failed to meet tougher safety standards and lacked credible evacuation measures.20

Apart from Sendai and Takahama, the only other plant to receive preliminary NRA reactor restart approval is Shikoku's Ikata plant. One of the three reactors has received preliminary approval but the future of the plant's other two reactors is unclear. Applications to restart the two reactors have not been submitted, and one of them is nearly 40 years old. Residents filed a lawsuit in December 2011 to close the plant, but a ruling has not yet been made.19

The assessment of seismic risks is delaying some restart approval processes and will likely result in some reactors being permanently shut down:

  • The two reactors at Hokuriku's Shika plant may be scrapped after an expert panel established by the NRA concluded that the plant likely sits above active faults. Hokuriku has applied to restart one of Shika reactors.21
  • One of the two reactors at Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tsuruga plant is likely to be scrapped after the NRA concluded in March 2015 that it sits above an active fault line.22
  • At least two key geological faults under Tohoku's Higashidori 1 reactor are believed to be active. NRA commissioner Akira Ishiwatari said in March: "It is very difficult to judge the situation. This is not a matter on which we can have an answer soon."22

Energy costs

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) estimates that nuclear power will remain the cheapest alternative for Japan over the next 15 years.23.24

METI's estimates of generating costs in 2030 are: "at least" ¥10.1/kWh for nuclear; coal ¥12.9, gas ¥13.4, oil ¥28.9−41.6, onshore wind ¥13.9−21.9, geothermal ¥19.2, hydro ¥11, biomass ¥13.3−29.7, and solar (utility and household) ¥12.7−16.4.23

METI's figures have attracted criticism. The nuclear figures are "fooling no one" according to a piece in Japan Times.24 METI excluded costs such as those associated with reactor decommissioning and the final disposal of reactor waste.23

METI's estimate of the future costs of dealing with nuclear disasters has been reduced on the grounds that stricter safety standards have halved the probability of large-scale accidents.25 By that logic the estimated costs ought to be increased on the grounds that Japan's corrupt 'nuclear village' is back in control just a few years after the Fukushima disaster.26

In a 2011 assessment, the minimum estimated generation costs in 2030 for renewable energy sources were below that of nuclear power. The latest report gives higher estimates for renewables, in part because it includes government-funded research projects on renewable energy.25

The Japanese government is alert to the economic vulnerability of nuclear power and is planning guaranteed prices for nuclear power even as the rest of the electricity industry is liberalized in the coming years.27

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper editorialized last August: "Giving preferential treatment to nuclear power, which the government has promised to reduce under its energy policy, would enable big utilities to keep their nuclear plants running and put these operators at an unfair advantage in competition with their rivals."28

Nuclear waste

There is no end in sight to Japan's efforts to establish a repository for high-level nuclear waste. The Nuclear Waste Management Organisation was set up in October 2000 by the private sector to progress plans for disposal. Municipalities were invited to indicate whether they were interested in hosting a repository. Only the town of Toyo in western Japan indicated interest − but the town's application was quickly withdrawn after the local population expressed strong opposition.

Now, the Japanese government intends to use a top-down approach, identifying "scientifically promising locations" first and then discussing options with local governments. The new policy was approved by Cabinet in May 2015.

The revised policy does not specify a timeframe for building a repository. The cost of building a repository is estimated at ¥3,500 billion (US$28.1b; billion; €24.9b).29

The Science Council of Japan has criticized the government for being "irresponsible toward future generations" by seeking to restart reactors without a decision on a waste disposal site. The council says that finding a site will be difficult "given that public trust in the government, power companies and scientists has been lost" because of the Fukushima disaster.30

IAEA report

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has written a detailed report on the causes and consequences of the Fukushima disaster.31,32

The report was more than two years in the making, and involved 180 'experts' from 42 countries along with several international bodies. The report is to be released to the IAEA's General Conference in September. But Greenpeace has obtained the report and published it online.32 Greenpeace has also released a detailed critique of the IAEA report.33

Justin McKeating from Greenpeace notes that the IAEA creates "a narrative that minimizes the health and environmental impacts of Fukushima, while emphasising that lessons are being learned, including in making nuclear safety regulation more effective. In short, the IAEA is moving to protect the nuclear industry instead of the people whose lives have been destroyed by the Fukushima disaster and those who may be affected by future nuclear accidents."32

The IAEA's primary currency is misleading euphemisms. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said the disaster resulted from "certain weaknesses in plant design, in emergency preparedness and response arrangements and in planning for the management of a severe accident."31 Likewise, the IAEA report states: "The regulations, guidelines and procedures in place at the time of the accident were not fully in line with international practice in some key areas, most notably in relation to periodic safety reviews, re-evaluation of hazards, severe accident management and safety culture."

In fact, the problems went well beyond "certain weaknesses" and a slight misalignment with international practice. Japan's nuclear industry was thoroughly corrupt. Numerous accidents before Fukushima resulted from the industry's serious, systemic failings −  as did the Fukushima disaster itself.34

The disaster "exposed certain weaknesses in Japan's regulatory framework", according to the IAEA, including divided responsibilities and a lack of clarity.31 In truth, the problems went well beyond "certain weaknesses". Japan's nuclear regulatory bodies were in on the game; they were part of the 'nuclear village'. Moreover, the problems that led to the Fukushima disaster are re-emerging; the nuclear village is back in control.26

Greenpeace notes that the new regulator, the NRA, is failing in its job. This is evident in the NRA's handling of the application to restart the Sendai reactors. Greenpeace notes: "Despite warnings of weak nuclear regulation, the NRA is not following international practice, including recommendations made by the IAEA. The NRA review of nuclear plants planned for restart, specifically the Sendai nuclear reactors, has accepted the violation of the post-Fukushima regulations, and thus has approved an inadequate seismic standard essential for the safety of the nuclear plant."33

The IAEA report claims that "no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public and their descendants." That may be true in that it would be difficult to detect Fukushima-related morbidity and mortality in epidemiological studies. Nonetheless, as the Greenpeace report notes, the number of fatal cancers in the Japanese population can be estimated at roughly 4,800 (based on the UN's collective dose estimate), in addition to non-fatal cancers and non-cancer illnesses.

Ever since the Fukushima disaster, the IAEA has been encouraging the Japanese government to weaken its radiation dose limits for workers and the public − and the government seems happy to oblige. The NRA is to increase the radiation exposure limit for workers in emergency situations from the current 100 millisieverts (mSv) to 250 mSv.35 For members of the public, the internationally accepted limit of 1 mSv has already been increased to 20 mSv, and members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are pushing for the limit to be increased to 50 mSv.36

The IAEA's platitudes about the importance of 'stakeholder involvement' are particularly cynical. In Fukushima prefecture, people have been effectively forced return to contaminated land. The lifting of evacuation orders, and the termination of compensation payments one year later, has forced people to return to places such as Tamura (Myakoji) or Kawauchi, where the evacuation order was lifted last year.33

The platitudes about 'stakeholder involvement' also ignore the fact that the current LDP government has set the clock back 20 years regarding public involvement in the development of energy policy. Dr Philip White, an expert on Japan's energy policy formation process, notes: "A major step toward greater public participation and disclosure of information occurred after the December 1995 sodium leak and fire at the Monju fast breeder reactor. Although public participation was not conducted in good faith, at least lip service was paid. It seems that the current government has decided that it doesn't even need to pay lip service."37

Meanwhile, at Fukushima Daiichi, it's business as usual with a steady stream of radioactive leaks. The latest significant leak, discovered on May 29, involved an estimated 7 to 15 tons of highly radioactive water leaked from a hose that was used to transfer contaminated water from storage tanks to a treatment facility. TEPCO said the water contained 1.1 million becquerels of beta-emitting radioactive materials per liter. The radioactive water made its way to the sea through a ditch, according to TEPCO.38

TEPCO said it did not replace the hose with a more durable one even though it was aware of the potential danger that could result from aging, and had not checked the hose since installing it in October 2013. NRA chair Shunichi Tanaka said TEPCO "should be held deeply responsible" and "lacks a strategic approach in addressing the contaminated water issue."38


1. 3 May 2015, 'The same old energy mix',

2. Chisaki Watanabe, 2 June 2015, 'Japan Government Too Bullish on Nuclear Role by 2030, BNEF Says',

3. 27 May 2015, 'Nuclear power crucial as renewable energy too costly, ministry says',

4. Naohito Maeda, 5 April 2015, 'Why not talk more about a nuclear-free future for Japan?',

5. Chisaki Watanabe and Emi Urabe, 28 April 2015, 'Japan Sees Clean Energy Edging Out Nuclear Power in 2030',

6. Keith Johnson, 8 April 2015, 'Japan Bets on Nuclear, and Coal, for Future Power',


8. Greg Peel, 26 May 2015, 'Uranium Week: Japan's Ups And Downs', FNArena News,

9. 25 April 2015, 'Legal fallout: Court cases frustrate efforts to restart Japan's nuclear plants',

10. WNN, 27 May 2015, 'Sendai reactors cleared for restart',

11. Friends of the Earth Japan, 7 Nov 2014,

12. Reuters, 27 May 2015, 'Nuclear regulator clears two Sendai reactors for restart',

13. Beyond Nuclear, 22 April 2015, 'Local judge denies lawsuit to block Sendai nuke restart as Japanese vow continued resistance to potential atomic volcano',

14. 23 April 2015, 'Anti-nuke activists disheartened over court ruling on reactor restarts in Kagoshima',

15. Robin Harding, 22 April 2015, 'Japan moves closer to nuclear restart',

16. Yuriy Humber, 1 May 2015, 'Japan Earthquake Expert Says Nuclear Watchdog Ignoring Risk',

17. 12 Nov 2014, 'Bad precedent for nuclear restart',

18. Nuke Info Tokyo No. 165, 31 March 2015, 'Green Light Given for Restarting Takahama Units 3 and 4',

19. 20 May 2015, 'NRA approves restart for third nuclear plant',

20. 15 April 2015, 'Japanese court blocks restart of Kansai Electric's Takahama nuclear reactors on safety grounds',

21. Toshio Kawada, 14 May 2015, 'Panel says faults under Shika nuke plant may be active',

22. WNN, 26 March 2015, 'Tsuruga 2 sits on active fault, NRA concludes',

23. Osamu Tsukimori, 28 Apr 2015, 'Japan's electricity cost estimates by power source in 2030 − METI',

24. Philip Brasor, 23 May 2015, 'Lowball nuclear pitch is fooling no one',

25. Tomoyoshi Otsu, 28 April 2015, 'Nuclear energy cheapest power source due to reduced disaster risks, ministry says',

26. 19 March 2015, 'Japan's 'nuclear village' reasserting control', Nuclear Monitor #800,

27. Reuters, 21 Aug 2014,

28. 23 Aug 2014, Asahi Shimbun, 'Special support for nuclear power operators at odds with market liberalization', Editorial,

29. WNA, Japan's Nuclear Fuel Cycle, updated May 2015,

30. 22 Feb 2015, 'Editorial: Nuclear waste disposal problem',

31. IAEA, 14 May 2015, 'IAEA Delivers Major Report on Fukushima Accident to Member States',

32. Justin McKeating, 1 June 2015, 'Greenpeace releases confidential IAEA Fukushima-Daiichi accident report',

33. Jan Vande Putte, Kendra Ulrich and Shaun Burnie, 28 May 2015, 'The IAEA Fukushima Daiichi Accident Summary Report: A preliminary analysis',

34. Friends of the Earth, Australia, 2012, 'Japan's nuclear scandals and the Fukushima disaster',

35. WNN, 21 May 2015, 'Japan to raise worker emergency radiation exposure limits',

36. 22 May 2015, 'LDP wants to let evacuees move back to areas tainted with 50 millisieverts or less by March 2017',

37. Philip White, 24 Jan 2014, Japan goes back to the future to affirm energy 'foundation', Nuclear Monitor #776,

38. 4 June 2015, 'NRA rebukes TEPCO for failure to contain radioactive Fukushima water',