Japan approves first reactor life extension since Fukushima disaster — Reuters via The Business Times

” [TOKYO] Japan’s nuclear regulator on Monday approved an application from Kansai Electric Power Co to extend the life of two ageing reactors beyond 40 years, the first such approval under new safety requirements imposed since the Fukushima disaster.

The move means Kansai Electric, Japan’s most nuclear reliant utility before Fukushima led to the almost complete shutdown of Japan’s atomic industry, can keep reactors No 1 and 2 at its Takahama plant operating until they are 60-years-old.

Both reactors have been shutdown since 2011 and any restart will not take place immediately as Kansai Electric needs to carry out safety upgrades at a cost of about 200 billion yen (S$2.57 billion).

A company spokesman told Reuters the upgrades involve fire proofing cabling and other measures and will not be completed until October 2019 at the earliest.

Takahama No 1 reactor is 41-years-old and the No 2 unit is 40-years-old. Located west of Tokyo, both have a capacity of 826 megawatts and are pressurised water reactors, which uses a different technology than the boiling water reactors that melted down at Fukushima in 2011.

Kansai’s No 3 and 4 units at the Takahama plant are under court-ordered shutdown after they were restarted earlier this year, a ruling that was upheld last Friday.

Opinion polls consistently show opposition to nuclear power following Fukushima. Critics say regulators have failed to take into account lessons learned after a massive earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Only two other reactors have restarted under the new regulatory regime, those at the Sendai plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power in southwestern Japan, Shikoku Electric Power expects to begin operations of its Ikata No 3 reactor in late July after receiving approval from the regulator, a spokesman has told Reuters.

Osaka-based Kansai Electric, which used to get about half of power supplies from nuclear plants before the 2011 disaster, says it needs to get reactors running to cut costs and improve its financial position.

It is facing competition from other suppliers after the government in April opened up the retail power market to full competition. ”

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40-year-old Japanese reactors poised for new lease on life — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO/OSAKA — Japan’s nuclear power regulators will likely clear reactors to remain in operation beyond 40 years for the first time, an exception that may become a factor in pending reviews of similar cases.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority is expected to approve units 1 and 2 at Osaka-based Kansai Electric Power’s Takahama plant for extensions, press officer Katsumi Matsuura said Monday.

As a general rule, reactors’ operating lives are supposed to end at 40. But extensions of up to 20 years are possible for those that pass three sets of assessments evaluating their compliance with new safety standards, their designs, and the effects of aging on their components.

The two Takahama reactors, in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, passed the safety assessments this April. The NRA will compile a report serving as de facto approval for the extensions in June.

The approval process is expected to finish up before a July 7 deadline. But even if they pass, the reactors would not resume operation until at least the autumn of 2019, because Kansai Electric is planning extensive safety upgrades.

Profit recharge

For Kansai Electric, restarting the pair of reactors would improve monthly earnings by an estimated 9 billion yen ($81.3 million). President Makoto Yagi has argued that the units still have “economic potential.”

The utility logged a net profit for the year ended March 31 but has no guarantee that fossil-fuel costs will remain low in fiscal 2016. A medium-term business plan compiled in April aims for a pretax profit of at least 300 billion yen a decade from now, assuming that most of its nuclear capacity resumes operation.

Approving the two reactors for extensions would likely set a precedent. Kansai Electric has also applied for an extension for the No. 3 reactor at its Mihama power plant in Fukui, aiming to complete the necessary procedures by the end of November. That reactor is expected to pass the NRA’s safety assessment as soon as this summer.

Other regional utilities are also weighing the benefits of keeping 40-year-old reactors in operation against the immense costs needed to make the grade. In May, smaller Shikoku Electric Power decided to decommission unit 1 at its Ikata nuclear plant in Ehime Prefecture rather than seek an extension.

Such decision-making will affect Japanese energy policy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has identified the atom as an important baseload energy source. Nuclear accounts for 20-22% of the government’s desired energy mix as of fiscal 2030.

This would entail having about 30 of the country’s 40-odd reactors in operation. But applying the 40-year rule on reactor operation without exception would leave only around 20 units. If most reactors end up qualifying for extensions, people may start questioning the purpose of the limit. ”

by Nikkei

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30 groups show radioactive soil levels to address Fukushima fears — The Asahi Shimbun

” A coalition of 30 private groups is digging deeper into radiation contamination from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to address persistent concerns from the public around Japan.

The coalition’s website, titled the East Japan Soil Measurement Project, shows radiation levels in soil samples taken from more than 1,900 sites in Tokyo and 16 prefectures, from northeastern Japan to the Pacific side of the central Japan.

The project was started partly because parents were concerned that local governments were using only airborne radiation levels to determine if outdoor areas were safe for children.

While radioactive contamination in the air decreases as time passes, that is not necessarily the case with radioactive substances in the ground.

The group’s survey of land contamination has found “hot spots,” where levels are significantly higher than in the surrounding neighborhoods, five years after the disaster unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The radiation levels in some of those areas are comparable to those at nuclear reactor buildings and medical institutions that provide radiation therapy, where public access is restricted because annual radiation doses can exceed 5 millisieverts.

Three citizens groups, including the nonprofit organization Fukushima 30-Year Project, created the website after forming an extensive network of private entities in October last year.

The groups conduct the measurements in a unified manner. About 1,000 cubic centimeters of soil samples are taken by digging 5 cm deep in the ground in the shape of a 10-cm-by-20-cm block in residential areas and districts that ordinary citizens are allowed to enter.

Extreme anomalies in the radiation measurements are not posted on the site because the purpose of the project is to show average contamination in local communities.

“We want to prevent viewers from misunderstanding the pollution level of a given community just because of isolated cases of high numbers,” said Hidetake Ishimaru, head of the coalition’s secretariat. “Viewers can get tips on how to avoid risks in daily life by comparing figures that were measured in a standardized manner.”

The highest reading so far was 135,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium detected in a forest near a home in the Hiso district of Iitate village, northwest of the embattled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The soil sample showed 111,028 becquerels of cesium-137 and 23,920 becquerels of cesium-134.

Radioactivity readings at many observation spots in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is far from the nuclear plant, were below the lowest detectable level.

But the survey this year still found sites in the Kanto region, south of the Tohoku region where the Fukushima plant is located, with readings exceeding 10,000 becquerels.

Save Child Iwate, a group in Iwate Prefecture, was the first of the 30 collaborating private organizations to take measurements in the soil.

Save Child Iwate started measuring radiation doses in the atmosphere and radioactivity in the soil throughout the prefecture in spring 2012. Many of the sites were at schools and parks. It has measured doses at 316 spots and publicized the results.

Kazuhiro Sugawara, a 39-year-old staff member of Save Child Iwate’s secretariat, said the group began measuring radioactivity in soil after local governments had insisted that it was safe to let children play outdoors.

Local officials cited low radiation doses in the air in their safety assurances.

But the group remained skeptical because the evacuation order for residents from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was issued in part based on the extent of ground contamination.

Sugawara’s daughter was 10 years old and attending an elementary school in Iwate Prefecture when the disaster started at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Like other parents in the area, Sugawara was most concerned about the safety of the children.

“We cannot feel safe without data on soil contamination because children play with earth, wipe the mouths with their dirty hands and inhale dirt blown up by wind, exposing themselves to the risk of internal radiation exposure,” Sugawara said about why he undertook the project. “If local officials would not bother to measure soil contamination, we decided to do so on our own.”

The highest land contamination figure Save Child Iwate recorded came from samples from private property in Kanegasaki in the prefecture in June 2012.

At that spot, the radiation level in the air was 0.24 microsieverts per hour, while radioactivity in the soil sample exceeded 4,500 becquerels.

The coalition accepts sample soils sent by concerned citizens for free measurements using funds provided by businesses and donations from the public.

It currently lacks sufficient data from Niigata, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures.

“Part of the reason we cannot enlist cooperation from groups in the three prefectures, where agriculture is thriving, is that they fear possible negative publicity,” Ishimaru said.

The coalition plans to hold workshops for citizens around the nation on how to gather samples to broaden support for the endeavor.

Tetsuji Imanaka, a researcher with Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute who has been monitoring land contamination in Fukushima Prefecture and elsewhere, stressed the importance of gaining data from soil.

“Since numbers on land contamination are basic data needed to study the scope of pollution in a given region, detailed surveys are necessary,” he said. “Ideally, local officials should do the task. I am hoping that the coalition will play a significant role.” ”

by Masakazu Honda

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*Editorial: 40-year rule for nuclear reactors on verge of being a dead letter — The Asahi Shimbun

” The 40-year lifespan for nuclear reactors, established after the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, is now in danger of being watered down to irrelevance.

The rule requires the decommissioning of aging reactors, starting with the oldest, for a gradual, carefully controlled process of phasing out nuclear power generation in this country.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on April 20 formally decided that the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, which have been in service for over 40 years, meet new nuclear safety standards introduced after the devastating 2011 accident.

This is the first license renewal for a reactor that has been in operation for more than four decades under the new standards.

If they pass the remaining regulatory inspections concerning technical details by the July deadline, the reactors will likely continue to generate electricity for two more decades.

The 40-year lifespan provision was introduced through a revision to the law after the Fukushima disaster.

Just one service life extension of up to 20 years is allowed, but only as an “extremely exceptional” measure.

This exception was made to avoid a shortage of electricity. But concerns about any serious power crunch have virtually dissipated thanks to a marked rise in levels of power and energy conservation in society.

The NRA’s formal decision to extend the life of the two aging reactors came amid a series of earthquakes rocking central Kyushu around Kumamoto Prefecture which have been described by the Japan Meteorological Agency as “a deviation from the rules extracted from past experiences.”

Many Japanese are concerned that the quakes could affect Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai nuclear plant in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture. The NRA’s decision to grant an exception to the rule so quickly could have the effect of relaxing the safety standards and deepening public distrust of the government’s nuclear regulation.

The Abe administration is leaving all licensing decisions on individual reactors entirely to the NRA. But it has mapped out a long-term energy supply plan based on the assumption that the service life of reactors will be extended.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who repeatedly pledged to lower Japan’s dependence on nuclear power as much as possible, has been changing his stance little by little without announcing any clear policy shift.

The NRA’s mission is to enhance the safety of nuclear plants from a scientific viewpoint.

But the way the nuclear watchdog assessed the safety of the reactors at the Takahama plant has raised questions about its appropriateness. The NRA has, for instance, allowed Kansai Electric Power to delay required quake resistance tests.

If it has scheduled its assessment work in a way to ensure that the July deadline will be met, the agency has got its priorities completely wrong.

A troubling situation is now emerging where decisions on whether to decommission specific reactors are effectively left to the utilities that operate them. As a result, these decisions are being based primarily on whether extending the life of the reactors will pay.

Operating many nuclear reactors in Japan, a small country with a large population that is highly prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters, inevitably entails a large risk.

This grim reality was the starting point for the reform of the nuclear power policy prompted by the Fukushima accident.

If the government sticks to the policy of maintaining nuclear power generation, the burden on society, including the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, could increase over the long term.

There is a clear global trend toward raising energy self-sufficiency through efforts to develop renewable energy sources.

A transition period may be necessary. But the only policy that makes sense is to shut down reactors steadily over a period of years.

The 40-year rule is one of the key principles of this policy. The government should remember this fact.

–The Asahi Shimbun, April 21 ”

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Five years after Fukushima: How to avoid the next nuclear disaster: Foreign Affairs

” Five years ago next month, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan, destroying its long-standing myth of zero-risk nuclear energy. The meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant revealed significant shortcomings in Japan’s safety culture, which the country has since learned from and has been trying to address. Countries charging ahead with nuclear power should heed these lessons to avoid another Fukushima.

In the years since the accident, the Fukushima plant’s damaged reactors have been stabilized through a makeshift water-cooling system, and releases of radioactivity have been greatly reduced. Meanwhile, after decontamination efforts, some of the over 100,000 evacuees have been allowed to return home.

However, despite some notable successes in cleaning up the site, tens of thousands of people are still displaced, work conditions at the plant remain poor, storing the accumulating radioactive water is an ongoing concern, and Japan remains decades away from fully decommissioning the mangled reactors. The total economic damage has been estimated at over $100 billion, and none of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi will ever operate again.

There have been no deaths from the effects of the radiation (according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, any increase in cancer rates is expected to be too small to detect). On the other hand, forced evacuation is estimated to have played a role in over 1,000 premature deaths, and according to a World Health Organization health risk assessment, as with Chernobyl, the psychological toll of the disaster is a major concern and potentially outweighs other health consequences.

The disaster prompted many other countries to take stock of their own nuclear programs. The take-home lesson for some, including a majority of the Japanese public, was to move away from nuclear power. For example, Germany vowed to phase out all nuclear power by 2022, Italy voted overwhelmingly not to restart its nuclear program, and Switzerland banned the construction of new reactors.

Other nations were hardly slowed in their expansion of nuclear energy. China, India, and Russia lead the way with, all together, more than 40 reactors under construction and over twice as many planned. In their haste, it seems that many of these countries have not absorbed the key lesson from Fukushima: the importance of a rigorous and all-encompassing safety regime.

Before the Disaster

According to a National Academy of Sciences study, prior to the Fukushima accident, Japan’s nuclear regulatory agencies did not seem to have sufficient expertise, authority, resources, or independence to adequately protect public safety. In hindsight, the problem appears to be a classic case of regulatory capture, reinforced by the common practices of amakudari (descent from heaven), referring to retired powerful public officials being hired into private sector jobs, and amaagari (ascent to heaven), referring to private sector experts moving into government-related positions.

Moreover, the regulatory body was housed in the very ministry charged with promoting nuclear energy, which created a potential conflict of interest. (To avoid similar issues, in 1975, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was split to separate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from promotional functions.)

An independent regulator is not sufficient, though: a strong culture of safety must also be cultivated throughout the nuclear network—from operators and construction workers up to plant owners—as well as throughout the supply chain. Pride must come not just from the megawatts produced; each entity should prioritize public safety when building or operating nuclear plants and maintain alertness through frequent drills for workers at all levels.

The 2011 meltdown turned a spotlight on the flaws in the safety regime of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Fukushima Daiichi operator. It had falsified reports and fudged safety-related inspections long before Fukushima; it had also failed to update its seismic and tsunami safety standards. To be sure, it is difficult to prepare for an event that seems nearly impossible, such as an earthquake and tsunami of the magnitude that hit Japan, but a superior safety culture can make a difference—some have argued that that was why the reactors at the Onagawa power station, which were slammed as hard as Fukushima Daiichi, remained intact and were safely shut down.

Praiseworthy Progress

Since the accident, Japan has taken admirable, although incomplete, steps to set up an independent regulator and to improve its safety culture, including by bringing in respected international advisers. Last year, it began gradually to reactivate some of the country’s functioning reactors. Before Fukushima, the more than 50 reactors had provided Japan with some 30 percent of its electrical power, but all were taken offline in the months after the accident.

Of course, Japan is not alone in facing these types of safety-related problems. After dissolving the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the United States, the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy, has faced criticism for the amount of influence the industry wields over its rule-making process. South Korea’s nuclear industry, too, has had problems, including a history of falsifying safety documents.

But most worrying are the developing countries entering the huddle. China leads the way, with plans to triple its nuclear-generating capacity by 2020, but its regulator is neither structurally independent nor well staffed. Because an accident has such massive potential for widespread damage, tight quality control is essential. China’s track record in this regard is not promising. For example, in 1987, the crew constructing a nuclear plant near Hong Kong misread blueprints and initially failed to incorporate a large portion of the requisite protective steel, raising questions about competence and oversight.

Some new powers are more prudent, including the United Arab Emirates, which began creating a solid regulatory framework, with a team of international experts to regularly assess the program’s progress, long before its first reactor comes online in 2017.

Others are more cavalier, such as Vietnam, another one-party state with nuclear ambitions and no precedent for any type of independent regulatory entity. Iran, a seismically active country, also has attracted concern over the safety of its current and future reactors and the lack of independence of its regulator, despite the recent nuclear deal with the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany). India is another fast-growing nuclear power, with over 25 reactors either under construction or planned. But it is stuck on the question of regulatory independence since a proposed law on regulation, tabled in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, was not passed by the legislature.

Calls for International Atomic Energy Agency reforms that will require more rigorous international safety checks are welcome, but it must not stop there. Generating nuclear energy should be recognized as a serious responsibility, given the scale of damage and suffering when things go wrong—as the world was reminded five years ago. ”

by David Roberts and Norman Neureiter

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